When I was in elementary school, back when the earth was cooling, we made a big deal of holidays and celebrations. I think that is probably the genesis of my propensity to decorate, celebrate, and grab any reason to have a party, a tea, a reception or just some fun. Of course we celebrated all the regulars and in ways I am not sure that are still familiar to school kids now. How many of you remember planting marigolds in paper cups at school, tending them carefully and giving them to your mother for Mother’s Day?
If the teacher ( or school, I am not sure who paid for it) was feeling rich we would have a day in April when we would line up dirt and paper cups and plant small plants–marigolds were the favorite, probably because they are cheap and hard to ill, in the cups. It was always fun and we took it very seriously, making sure the dirt was just deep enough to keep the plant upright, but not so deep that the plant did not fit.
If times were hard, you got seeds in February rather than plants in April. That meant a lot more work. Making sure the seeds were buried to the appropriate depth, watering the seedlings carefully so you did not kill them,etc. But whichever way, we always had a windowsill full of marigolds by Mother’s Day.
Our mothers would pretend to be delighted with this annual offering, and I know my mother always planted my plant in the flower garden with great ceremony after Mother’s Day.
Valentine’s Day, however, was not about maternal or any other kind of devotion. It was a combination competition and social networking sans computers. In the early grades, say up to 4th or 5th, it was a matter of two things. How nicely you could decorate your Valentine’s box and how many valentines you received.
The Valentine’s box was a shoe box that had been covered, generally with red construction paper. Depending on the teacher we either dedicated a few art periods to the creation of our box, or the instructions were sent home to make one.You were to tape the box itself together and cut a slot in the top large enough to receive a valentine. Because valentines varied in size the slot had to be fairly large. This sometimes led to accidents where the slot actually was too long and split the top of the box in half. My mother lost a lot of shoe boxes on the altar of Cupid.You were then to decorate your box and put your name on it.
Either constructed at school or brought in from home, the Valentine’s Box was carefully scrutinized and judged by your classmates. The boys, especially in those lower grades, feigned disgust at having to make one, and contempt for the entire exercise. I noticed, however, that none of them failed to make a box of some description, although not surprisingly, their boxes tended to be much less ornate than those of the girls.
Because we had not yet adopted the idea that children’s self-esteem is fragile in our school systems, there were no rules that everyone had to give everyone a valentine. We would place our boxes on a specified table or desk and students would file around very seriously depositing valentines into the boxes of the children they wanted to give a valentine to.
Then after some ceremony–usually some telling of the story of St. Valentine, some punch and cookies or cupcakes, everyone was free to retrieve his or her box and go back to one’s desk and unpack your loot. If you had been careful in the construction of your box you could do this without destroying your design. Most kids, however, simply ripped off the top and dumped the valentines out on their desks to be sorted through and read.
We were allowed to read the valentines, exclaim over ours and our classmates’ haul, laugh at the funny ones and make smooching noises at the sappy ones. Looking back over a few decades I am sure there were some children who did not get many valentines or who did not have the money to buy valentines period. I do not remember anyone not having a Valentine’s Box or getting any valentines, but I do remember kids getting few valentines and I remember the pecking order. If your valentines were homemade that was considered tacky, if they were store bought that was better, if they were a specific character like Bugs Bunny or Mickey Mouse, they were the most expensive kind and you got the most social capital for those.
As we got older and Valentine’s Day began to mean more than just candy hearts and construction paper, the boxes were still in use, but the competition to make them special was accelerated. By 6th grade the girl’s boxes were decorated not just with construction paper, or with construction paper at all, but with fabric, artificial flowers, lace, ribbon, pom poms, you name it. And the competition to get the most valentines was brutal.
Close count was kept, with the ultimate coup not being getting one from everyone, but getting one from all the right ones, the popular kids! Careful tallies were kept to see if you got one from certain kids and what that meant was that you were socially acceptable. The kind of valentine you got also meant something. If boys gave you funny valentines that meant they did not consider you eligible for the role of girlfriend. The opposite was not, however, true. If girls gave boys funny valentines that was often the sign that she thought he was rather cool.
The ultimate was to get one of the valentines with the request “Be my Valentine.” That was serious romantic mojo for a 12 year old. This was often reinforced by the little candy hearts with writing on them. If you got a valentine with that message and then, when candy was being doled out, if the author gave you a candy with the same message it was as good as an engagement ring….well maybe a promise ring anyway.
I will never forget the first Valentine’s Day that I got not only a “Be my Valentine” card and candy, but a necklace with half a heart on it. The other half, I was informed was going to be kept by my suitor. I was delighted and sure that I could hear wedding bells, see the picket fence and needed to start picking out kids’ names. He was my first boyfriend, Eddie Mc had moved to Xenia and started at Lincoln School and we were not sure about him because although he was black he had green eyes.
I went to my first dance with him in 6th grade and thought I was the grownest thing in the world. My parents had taken my first dance seriously and we went to Dayton to Rikes and bought a white dress ( I think we might have all had to wear white dresses) with spaghetti straps and a full skirt. I thought I was surely going to be the belle of the ball. Eddie came to pick me up, remember I lived next door to the school , and we walked very formally up the long sidewalk and into the school and on into the gym which had been decorated for the dance. It was a magic night, and I’ll always remember Eddie. He went on to become an attorney, unfortunately in the midst of a nasty divorce his wife shot and killed him.
Valentine’s Day brings up good memories, and some that are not so good. Hope yours is romantic and dipped in chol