Valentine’s Day was around the corner.
For my daughter, Becky Hallstrom, that meant a party for the kindergarten class she taught.
“They’re really looking forward to it,” she told me over the phone one evening. “Especially the valentines exchange. The kids are filling their cards out all by themselves.”
“That’s a lot of writing,” I said.
“Yep. One card for every student in the class. Guaranteed.”
Becky’s words might have sounded casual, but she knew they were important for me to hear. She knew the story all too well. The story of another Valentine exchange long ago.
My mind drifted back. I was a student not much older than Becky’s kindergarteners. In the 1940s at a public school in Chicago, Illinois, my teacher announced a party.
“On Valentine’s Day we give cards to those we care about.” She placed a big wooden box on the corner of her desk.
My friends and I sat up in our chairs for a better look. The box was decorated with paper hearts and lace, and there was a narrow slit in the top, kind of like a mailbox.
“You can put valentines for your friends in the box,” the teacher said. “As many as you want. I knew we’d have lots so I got a big box to hold them. At the party we’ll open up the box and deliver the cards. Doesn’t that sound fun?”
We all nodded. Some of the girls giggled and whispered to each other. I was more interested in the party. Cookies! I didn’t see how a valentines box could beat that.
All week the box took up space on the teacher’s desk, a reminder of its importance. Students dropped envelopes inside here and there. The girls liked to make a big deal of it when they dropped in a fat pile, one card at a time to make sure the event was noticed by the whole class. I dropped a couple in for my friends. Why not? It was Valentine’s Day.
The party, when the day finally arrived, did not disappoint. There was punch and heart-shaped cookies. I was feeling pretty good about this Valentine’s Day stuff as I sat at my desk and enjoyed the snacks.
At her desk, our teacher opened the box and started passing out the little envelopes inside. I waited at my desk, wondering who had sent one to me.
The girls oohed and aahed as they received theirs. The boys mostly played it cool, with a friendly elbow jab of thanks. I played it cool too, waiting at my desk. Maybe mine are at the bottom, I thought as the girl across the aisle from me added yet another card to her pile.
The teacher moved toward me, her hands full of envelopes. I sat up straight, ready to accept her delivery, but she handed a card to the boy behind me. I took a gulp of my punch, hoping no one had noticed.
As I chatted with friends, I kept one eye on the teacher, checking on her progress. The box was now empty, and there were only a couple of cards left in her hand. Just let me get at least one, I thought.
The teacher went back to her desk. She put the box away for next year.
I hadn’t gotten a single valentine. Nobody wanted to give me a card? I thought. Not one person?
“Hey, Ken didn’t get any!” one of my friends called out.
I waved him away. “A good thing too. Nobody better be giving me some lacy heart card! Valentines are strictly for girls.”
My friends laughed as I crunched into my cookie. What did I need with a card, after all? I had friends. I didn’t need a valentine to tell me so. It didn’t matter. I just put on my tough face and wore it the rest of the day. What else could I do? I wasn’t about to cry at school. But years later memories of that party did bring tears to my eyes.
“You know, Becky,” I said. “I’ve had over sixty Valentine’s Days since then, and that’s still probably the one I remember most.”
No matter how many years went by, that tiny wound in my heart always stung a little. I guess part of me would always be waiting for that valentine. Just let me get at least one.
“I always tell my class that story, Dad,” Becky said. “They’re surprised that someone your age can still feel hurt about something that happened when he was a kid.”
“I wouldn’t have believed it either, back then,” I said. “I knew nobody was trying to hurt my feelings, especially my friends. I just got overlooked. Maybe they thought a boy like me didn’t want a valentine. After all, even I didn’t seem to know just how much I wanted one!”
“That’s what I explained to them, Dad. It’s an important lesson for them to learn, how we can hurt people by things we don’t do as much as with the things we do.”
I hung up the phone more proud of Becky than ever. Maybe that awful Valentine’s Day party was worth it if she could use it to teach so many children about kindness and keep other kids from feeling the way I did that day so many years ago.
On the fourteenth Becky called me when she got home from school. “The party was a great success,” she reported. “I got some good cards this year. And I even put a surprise in the mail for you.”
“For me?” I said. “Becky, you didn’t have to send me a valentine.”
“I didn’t,” she said. “When I told your story to the class, I wanted them to think about their classmates’ feelings. But for one student that was just the beginning. I won’t say any more right now, Dad. I don’t want to ruin the surprise. Just keep an eye on your mailbox.”
A couple days later a tiny envelope arrived addressed to me. Inside was a funny little card, the kind kids give to each other these days. Not the homemade kind we used to pass out. This one was clearly store-bought. But the careful printing by a child’s own hand made the card unique. This card was meant for one person and one person only, to make him feel special. “To Mrs. Hallstrom’s Dad. Love, Olivia.”
Now this would be the Valentine’s Day I’d remember forever. Thanks, Olivia, for the best valentine ever.
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