When I was in elementary school in Illinois, back in the olden days, the custom on Valentine’s Day was for each pupil in the class to present a valentine to every other pupil and one to the teacher. Punch-out books were available at the drug store with maybe twenty-five cute little valentines and a bigger one for the teacher, plus envelopes. Twenty kids were as many as we ever had in a single class, so we only needed to buy one book.
We made a big deal out of Valentine’s Day. Joanne Semple and I crafted a frieze of happy dancing hearts out of construction paper and tacked it up over the blackboard. When we got to class we dropped our valentines–one for each kid, for to leave anybody out would have been a shocking breach of etiquette–into a big box, and the teacher passed them out later. Charles Evans, the rich kid, gave out valentines with lollipops attached to them, which was charming, but otherwise one valentine was much like another. Sweet, no?
And then we moved to New Jersey.
I could write a book about my year at Evergreen School in Plainfield, if I could stand to revisit it. Seventh grade. Everybody was thirteen years old, if you know how that works, and I was the green monkey. It was a horror show whose depths I don’t particularly want to plumb right now, but I did want to share the agony of the distribution of the valentines.
Because who knew it wasn’t the same deal as Illinois? Well, I could have figured, I suppose, in a place where it cost more than your weekly allowance to get into the movies, where you had to dial a phone instead of asking the operator for a number, where packs of cub scouts attacked you in the park, where people stepped on your feet and pulled up your dress in the schoolyard, where Patsy Freeman and her rough girlfriends threatened to beat you up on the way home, that the valentine ritual would be different.
But who knew? I bought my book of valentines at the drugstore and made them out to everyone in the class.
I received two, myself, one from the teacher and one from a girl I sort of hung out with because she was bigger than Patsy Freeman and would walk home with me. Only getting two valentines wouldn’t have been so bad, since I didn’t particularly like any of those other people. But come to find out that Valentine’s Day at Evergreen was the day that the hormone-ridden middle-schoolers of Plainfield sorted out who had a crush on who, by means of their valentines. People assumed that I, pathetic green monkey that I was, was making overtures to them. Romantic overtures. Girls points and giggled. Horrible boys leered and drooled at me because I had sent them a valentine. Patsy Freeman herself smiled and winked. God help me.
After that I was pretty much cured of sending valentines. So if you know that I love you, know that I love you, and don’t expect a card. If you don’t know that I love you, I probably don’t.