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.

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.

In junior high school, the business of attracting affection became bewildering and complex - more complex than the most intricately designed Valentine Box. Now clothes, sports, and at least a budding knowledge of cars, were considered the paths to a girl's heart.

But for me, by the age of 12, the new key to both life and love was art. Suddenly, all things visual, musical, and literary were my tools to imprint upon the world the frustrations and injustices I'd begun to brood over but hadn't communicated to anyone. I also imagined that my new image might help attract the kind of girls who had deep feelings about life and didn't care about football.

The theory never really paid off, but that didn't keep me from trying. I painted. I drew. I created profound shapes in plaster and bailing wire. I read e.e. cummings, wrote free-verse, and a short autobiography. I played tuba in the band for three years. Still, true love escaped me.

Then there was photography. Once I'd acquired the basic skills of developing and printing my own pictures, I set out to do a perfect portrait of Janet Oliver, a blonde that half the male population of the school was hopelessly pining away for. What girl could resist having an artistic portrait done for free by an expert?

She agreed to the idea, and I appeared at her door with my Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera around my neck, and my vinyl photographer's bag slung over my shoulder, filled with impressive supplies and accessories to be taken out later and mumbled over ceremoniously.

Janet was excited about getting her picture taken. We went out in the yard, where the light was better for serious portrait work, and I set about my task. She stood motionless, arms at her sides, staring straight into the camera with a hint of a smile. My breath quickened a little as I looked through the viewfinder into her eyes and took the picture.

Several days later I presented her with the finished product. For a classic effect, I'd printed the picture blurred softly at the edges. Unfortunately the image of her face was a bit blurry too and had a sort of puzzled look to it.

She thanked me politely and took the envelope containing the two five-by-sevens and dozen wallet-sized prints and walked away. My art had let me down. After all the words I'd rehearsed during hours in the darkroom, this wasn't the way it was supposed to be.

Actually, my attempts to find love through art and song, had begun much earlier. In fourth grade I fell in a big way for Sharon Barta, who had really pretty eyes and a nice smile. One day during a softball game, as she stepped up to bat, I was so overcome with the need to express my affection, I burst into song in front of the whole gym class, with ``I-I-I love you! I keep dreaming of you!'' but in a Donald Duck voice so others would think I was just kidding around.

The romantic effects were not immediate. In fact, she didn't pay any attention to me for the next seven years. But one night, when she and I were 16, after singing in the spring choir concert, in the darkened hall back where her locker was, Sharon Barta kissed me, and the world became a different and more beautiful place.

But in high school my self-styled image, the suffering teenage artist, didn't retire gracefully.

I brooded and longed for depth and real love in place of the sad shallowness and frivolity around me, and was always ready for a serious conversation. Sometimes I got one, but usually it was with Scott O'Malley, who was an atheist and liked to argue, or with Bob Lichter, who was on the debate team. One time I tried to press the issue of serious conversation upon an uninterested girl, but we were on a school bus headed for an ``away'' football game and everybody else was singing ``a hundred bottles of pop on the wall....'' As I recall, she responded sarcastically by offering her opinions on permitting giraffes to vote.

High school seems a safe place to leave this story. It's just that many of us, who suppose we've left our Valentine Boxes behind in grade school, carry them around much longer. We decorate them in the most absurd and elaborate ways to attract attention. We dwell in dreams and preconceptions, then labor to fulfill them through contrivances, and we're disappointed when these fail, which is nearly all the time.

At some point, though, perhaps long into adulthood, we may discover that we can stop the foolishness, the designing, and the worrying. We may find that all we really have to do is present to the world simply who we are, and trust that - at just the right time and place - into our unadorned Valentine Box will drop precisely the message of love we need.

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