The Lesson of the Valentine Box
IT seemed such an innocuous thing at the time. A small cardboard box - a shoe box, usually, or something about that size. Mom or Dad would find one for me in the basement every February, in time for me to take to school. The Valentine Box was, and maybe still is, one of those mandatory school traditions that fourth-graders tend to have mixed feelings about.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
It was a thing of beauty that we all could make. Red hearts glued on white paper, or on white-lace doilies against red paper for dramatic effect. Perhaps an arrow piercing the heart, or a Cupid poised to shoot. Dozens of minute, delicate hearts forming a design was good. The more intricate the better.
Each little person's Valentine Box was a kind of monument to his or her expectations. After all, it was the only day of the year when you had a chance to find out so graphically how much other people liked you. Of course, everyone had to give everyone else a valentine. But it was the quality we were interested in. We were looking for signs of our own specialness. Anybody could get a plain, stamped-out generic card. But the ones on thicker paper, or in their own envelopes - these were worth waiting until February for.
Even a cheap valentine could be redeemed with the right message written on it. It didn't have to be much - just some little indication that we'd been noticed by someone. It could be a ``Hope to see you sometime,'' or a ``Hi, friend!'' that, interpreted with a little imagination, could be taken as a portent of great companionship to come.
One hardly dared hope for more robust expressions of affection, but they occasionally did appear. The favorite, the ever-popular ``I love you'' was often followed by no name at all, and for good reason; at age 9 or 10 it was hard to know where to go with a relationship once such a sentiment became clearly identified with you. So, the receiver was left with a sort of delicious mystery to unravel.
Our mixed feelings about the Valentine Box, of course, had to do with the fear that our catch of valentines wouldn't be much to get excited about. Everyone's nightmare was an empty box or one with nothing but routine stuff in it. So the decorating of the boxes became a kind of contest, even though we all knew deep down that if somebody didn't like us a lively pattern of hearts wouldn't do much to change things.
It wasn't just in February that we occupied ourselves with issues of popularity. It was a constant source of concern. Oh, the crushes! Oh, the infatuation and the pain! How we would fall over ourselves to make ourselves known. Oh, the ways we suffered in secret for the love of that person (that one, over there), so unreachable, so impossibly wonderful.
In fifth grade I worshiped Jackie Caruth from afar and it got me nowhere. She was beautiful and always tan, and she not only had a ponytail, she had a pony. I don't remember ever speaking directly to her, though I phoned her once just to say hi, which was, in fact, all I could say. Sometimes, our family would drive on a road that passed her house. My heart would pound mercilessly and I'd watch to see if she appeared, while trying to look straight ahead so no one would know.
In sixth grade, I decided to try a more direct approach. One day I became smitten with a girl named Marcia Rowe, because we had school patrol duty at the same time during recess, and I liked how funny she was. I suggested we meet at the Avalon one night to see a Walt Disney movie.
The Avalon Theater was a magical place, where thousands of tiny stars in the domed ceiling twinkled over a world of young lovers. I'd never had my arm around a girl before and wasn't sure I was doing it correctly - not knowing whether it was proper to drape it across her shoulders, or to rest it more casually on the back of the seat. The importance of this question faded quickly when I began to worry that she might expect me to kiss her - a concept even farther from my experience. But somehow it never came up.
Later in the year, I had to stay home in bed for two weeks, and Marcia showed up with a gift from my classmates - a long paper scroll, rolled up on two twigs, bearing encouraging notes from everyone. But it was Marcia's message that meant the most, especially the way she signed it,
``Love whoops! Marcia.'' I wasn't exactly sure what it meant, but it seemed OK with me.
Word must have gotten around after that, because other kids began teasing us, saying ``Paul and Marcia, kissing in the woods!'' It was, of course, a total falsehood, but one I didn't mind leaving in general circulation.