FROM THE ARCHIVES: CARD WAS A LABOR OF LOVE BUT IT FAILED TO IMPRESS MISSY JOHNSON
Here it is coming up on Valentine’s Day again, not one of my favorite events of the year. What, you may ask in some surprise, would incline such a normally even-tempered, good-natured scribe to dislike a day supposedly devoted to hearts and flowers, romance and chocolates? Childhood blighted the day for me: even now after more than half a century its imminent arrival arouses within my soul a sense of vague disquietude.
Today’s elementary classrooms are furnished with computers and learning specialists. Teachers nowadays probably don’t ostentatiously fetch to school around Feb. 1 a large cardboard box for class valentines. Ours did. I can see the one in sixth grade to this day. Teacher had wrapped the box in white tissue paper and then decorated it with cut-out red hearts. Girls greeted the arrival of the valentine box with excited twittering. I thought it was just about the ugliest thing I’d ever seen. Memories of Valentine’s Day, circa fifth grade, still were far too painful for me as a more mature sixth grader to regard that valentine box with anything but utter loathing. That box, you see, was to fifth and sixth graders as the Olympic stadium is to a world-class hurdler. The intense competition which centered about that container equaled in intensity that surrounding the summer games last year in Seoul.
Money, or rather the lack of it, was the chief preoccupation of all in our southern West Virginia coal camp during the early 1930’s. And cash played an important role in the annual grade school valentine Olympics.
Valentines back then were of only two varieties, homemade and “store bought.” An individual outsized valentine, with curly edges, embossed flowery sentiments and its own envelope might cost as much as a dime. There was talk in school that one time the mine boss’ son had paid a whole quarter for a valentine he sent to his sweetheart, but most dismissed this as a wild flight of fancy. No one, not even the foreman’s kid, had quarters to spend for a valentine back then. Even 10-cent ones were rare, exceedingly so.
On an Olympic scale, the recipient of an individual store-bought valentine was a perfect 10, gold medal winner, clearly the champion of the grade school competition. One year Agnes Ledbetter got two, an accomplishment still regarded with awe by her peers as late as next Independence Day.
Ranking next highest in the competition were small valentines which came two dozen to the package. These were all exactly alike. No envelopes came with them. While still enjoying the coveted store-bought status, these scored only a six or seven in the grade school valentine Olympics. At least three of these-from three different people-were required for a silver medal. Patsy White’s big brother once dropped a whole package of small valentines in the box for her. Patsy’s peers were quick to notice the similarity in the handwriting on each, and this attempt at stuffing the valentine box was foiled.
Next down the scale-these were by far the most prevalent-were the homemade valentines. Some truly were artistic masterpieces. Talented youngsters used scissors, glue, paper, ink and devised marvelous creations. Top of the line among these earned solid fives, and even an occasional grudging six. The recipient of, say, 10 or more decent homemade valentines usually could be assured of the equivalent of a bronze in the fierce grade school competition.
As noted, some of the homemade valentines which were surreptitiously into the box were things of beauty. Mine were not. Despite my most strenuous efforts, the hearts I cut out were so crooked they virtually shrieked for transplants. My glue congealed into lumps under the top sheet of paper. The ink with which I attempted to pen tender sentiments blotched. My homemade valentines were, in a word, a mess. But in my eyes at the time they looked almost as pretty as a store bought one.
Queen of the fifth grade, hands down, was Missy Johnson. She had long golden curls, and was fond of telling other envious little girls, “I have naturally curly hair just like Shirley Temple.” Odds were that Missy would have at least 30 valentines when they were handed out of the box. And that wasn’t counting the obligatory homemade one which our teacher carefully had prepared for each student. I was deeply in love with Missy, along with 17 other fifth grade boys.
I screwed up my courage to the extent of deciding to send her a valentine, my first ever to a real live girl. What pains I took! Cut out a big heart just as carefully as I knew hoe, pasted small ones around the edge, carefully printed, “Will You Be My Valentine” on the front and “Missy” on the back and dropped it in the box. It was gorgeous I thought. And although it was unsigned, Missy would be sure to know from it came, and she would be terribly impressed, I thought.
The day came, finally, and I tingled with anticipation. Missy smiled demurely as her name was called and she received valentine after valentine, winning the fifth grade championship easily, taking the gold, silver and bronze. I gazed in rapture at those golden curls.
When the bell rang and school was over, I was so excited I forgot my books. Halfway across the schoolyard I remembered and returned for them. As I left the silent classroom, I noticed a piece of paper by the wastebasket in the corner. I liked the janitor, and to save an extra step I picked it up.
O! Perfidious Missy! It was my valentine, carelessly crumpled and ruthlessly discarded. Also there in the wastebasket were four others sent to Missy which had suffered the same fate.
When I reached home, Mother put her arms around me, and said “Thank you for the valentine. It was nice.” I had forgotten how, almost as an afterthought, I had made a valentine for her-after Missy’s was done, of course. On that Valentine’s Day back in the fifth grade I learned about true love. It was a valuable lesson. To discover at such a tender age that love really isn’t cards, or candy in a box, or flowers in a vase, or even a day called Valentine”s.