As an elementary school child, I began counting down the days to Valentine’s Day a few days into January.
A week or so before the holiday, the classroom teacher would instruct us to bring in an empty tissue box or shoe box to serve as our valentine "mailbox." Time would be set aside one afternoon a few days before the class party to decorate our boxes. Our teacher would pull out red, pink and white construction paper, colorful doilies, glitter and crayons, and we would get to work determined to outdo our friends and make the very best valentine box ever.
Not a very artistic child, my mailbox usually looked pretty pathetic with more glitter on me than my box, until my friend Penny instructed me in the art of creating the perfect paper heart - fold the paper in half, draw half a heart on the edge, cut and unfold. Works every time!
I noticed early on that many of the boys in my class didn't particularly enjoy the mailbox-decorating project, as was reflected by some of their half-hearted attempts. I do remember one young classmate being forced to re-do his mailbox when the teacher caught sight of his hand-drawn rendition of every female classmate adorned with buck teeth and googley eyes.
When our boxes were finished, we displayed them on our desks in preparation for the Valentine's Day party. The room mother would appear (anyone else remember room mothers?), cupcakes and cookies and juice in tow and the party could begin.
Now, my mother served as my classroom mother for a couple of my elementary school years, which was both a good and bad thing. Good in that I always enjoyed showing off my mother, but bad in that I was very well aware I was being observed as I chowed down on goodies.
No one else's mother was there telling them they needed to save room for dinner!
And heaven help me if she saw me sneaking a piece of the Juicy Fruit or Fruit Stripe (remember the zebra stripes?) gum slipped in my valentines.
"Didn't the orthodontist tell you gum chewing is not allowed?"
More than the candy and treats, I have such fond memories of walking around to each desk to deposit my valentine cards in my friends' mailboxes. I hoped each recipient would know how many hours I spent painstakingly deciding who would receive which card.
Choosing valentine cards for the class was always very serious business, made even more so by the task of deciphering the hidden messages and meanings in all those cheesy sentiments so you didn't accidentally send the wrong message to the wrong person.
My mother was a stickler for keeping to the class list the teacher sent home a week or two before the party. It didn't matter how much I didn't like someone in my class, everyone got a valentine card so no one would feel left out. This was strictly enforced by the teacher as well as my mother.
This little rule meant that Carla, my third-grade nemesis, was required to receive a valentine card from me.
Thankfully, the makers of valentine cards invented a solution for the Carlas of the world - the B-list valentine card.
For coining the name "Skinny Lynnie," threatening to tell my classmates that she caught me sucking my thumb at a slumber party, and chasing me in gym class until she grabbed a ribbon on the sleeve of my favorite strawberry print dress (the one my Aunt Suanne sent me for Christmas), causing it to rip, Carla received an “I’ll never forget you” valentine card with a large circus elephant balancing on a stool - my grade school attempt to give her an inferiority complex. (Sorry, Carla!)
And for classmates I liked but certainly didn't want to send the "wrong" message I selected valentines that said things like, "I’m not lion, Valentine. Will you be mine?" or "Valentine, you quack me up."
While none of my classmates were allowed to not receive a valentine, neither was I allowed to purchase a bigger or better valentine for a special friend. We followed the rules that everyone was treated equally.
The best I could do to show my undying, forever love for some unsuspecting boy in my class was to slip a particularly poignant conversation heart into the envelope with his perfectly chosen card.
As I sat at the kitchen table selecting just the right valentines for my friends, I would imagine the love of my life doing the same.
Did he, like me, purposefully review each card in the valentine box, reading and re-reading each heartfelt sentiment, trying to predict my reaction to the words?
Did he, like me, pour out handfuls of candy conversation hearts looking for just the right word or expression to convey his love and heedfully place it in the envelope with my valentine.
All these years later, my husband says no. He tells me that whatever card my true-love (at the time) pulled out of the box when he came to my name on the list is the card I received, that no thoughts or emotions whatsoever were attached to the process. He even tells me that my heart's desire probably never even attempted to look for any "hidden meaning" behind the card I so carefully chose for him.
While that may have been true of my grade school beaus, my real life Prince Charming needs to rush over to Hallmark pretty darn quickly because he has a lot of reading to do to find the perfect card for me this year.