My decorated shoe box sits along the chalk tray with twenty others. I went to Woolworth’s last week with my best friend, Susan, to buy red and pink construction paper, paper lace doilies, and heart-shaped stickers. We spent the entire Saturday afternoon cutting out paper hearts of all shapes and sizes, layering them with the lace doilies, and pasting them onto shoe boxes we had retrieved from our fathers’ closets. We each covered our shoe box with the construction paper, and carefully cut a slit into the box lid big enough for the fanciest Valentine to fit through, but too small for a hand to reach in to count the cards. We created two masterpieces, works of art, beautiful beyond comparison. We couldn’t wait until Monday to place them in the classroom. None in the entire class could compare with our Valentine boxes.
Susan’s box sits down the shelf from mine. They are arranged in ABC order. Susan is lucky. Her box is between Jane Richards’ and Stephen Summer’s. Jane’s is decorated and frilly, Stephen’s is a boy’s box – no competition, whatsoever. But my luck is to be sandwiched between Kathleen Brown’s and Dan Davidson’s. Dan’s is a lot like Stephen’s – no sweat. But Kathleen, always Kathleen. I don’t know how she does it. The same materials adorn her box as mine, but her box makes mine look like an orphan. I don’t understand it. Everything Kathleen does is perfect, from Friday spelling tests to Valentine boxes! Her box is even bigger than mine. Her father is very tall, and has a larger foot than my father’s. What luck. I bet she’ll have more cards in her box than I do, too.
Each morning the week of Valentine’s Day, we are allowed to bring in our cards and “mail” them to our classmates. I check my box daily, peeking through the narrow slit to see if I can tell how many cards I have. I also check Kathleen’s and Susan’s boxes. I am positive that they have more cards than I do. I even addressed a few of my extras to myself and slipped them into my box to make it look full. My beautiful box is looking plainer and plainer everyday, as it sits next to Kathleen’s. It just doesn’t look as fancy as it did at my house last Saturday. I am feeling very sorry for myself, and I dread Valentine’s Day instead of looking forward to it.
Valentine’s Day arrives, and with it an excitement in the air. Someone’s mom brings decorated cupcakes to school, and my mother arrives with cut-out heart sugar cookies. Our room ceases to be a classroom as a party atmosphere fills the air. Our teacher stands up in front of the class and gives us her lecture about how it isn’t important how many Valentines we receive, but what kind of friends we are everyday. I have heard the same speech every year since first grade, but for some reason this year it strikes very close to my heart. I have been so consumed with my own box and how full it is, I have forgotten the other children in the class. I look at Dan seated in the desk next to mine. Did I remember to put a card from me into his box? I can’t remember. And Kathleen? She is so smart and talented, she does everything to perfection. Her spelling test papers are flawless and her penmanship is perfect. I wonder if she is as nervous as I am about opening her Valentine box.
The boxes are distributed to us, and we are allowed to open them. Mine is full of cards, but many of them are from me. I separate these from the rest only to discover that I still have lots of cards. Oblivious to anyone around me, I open each card, read it, and look on the back to see who it is from. I am feeling good as I go through my pile of cards. I do have friends, and it really doesn’t matter anymore if my box is as fancy as Kathleen’s. I open a card from Dan, and turn toward him to say thanks. He has just torn open an envelope, and I recognize my printing on it. I am so relieved that I did send one to him after all. I turn my attention back to the job at hand, and find a card that is different from all the others. The envelope is handmade of construction paper, and it is larger than the others. Who can it be from? I pull the sticker off very carefully that seals it, and I gently pull out a card made out of cut-out hearts and pictures from a store-bought card from another year. It is the most beautiful Valentine I have ever seen in my life! I am afraid to turn it over to see who it is from. I look around the room to see if anyone is watching me, but everybody is busy opening their own cards and eating cupcakes and cookies. Furtively, I place one hand in front of the card to shield it from any eyes that might be looking in my direction, and with my other hand I silently flip the card over on its back.
Written in painstakingly neat handwriting on the back of this wonderful card is “I love you. Be my Valentine. Stephen.” I feel the blood rush to my face, my very first blush. Embarrassed, I slide the card to the bottom of my stack where it can’t be seen by anyone. I cut my eyes over toward Stephen’s desk. He is looking at me, but drops his head quickly when he sees my eyes move his way. His face turns rosy, his first blush.
It was a very special Valentine’s Day. Fifth grade, if I remember correctly, maybe sixth. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that it is the Valentine’s Day when I discovered new truths and gained new insights about competition, friendship, first love.
Stephen and I probably never said more than a dozen words to each other throughout our elementary school years. We held hands once at a school carnival, but never worked up the nerve to say anything to each other. I kept his Valentine for years. I am not sure what finally happened to it. I still remember exactly what it looked like, and I can still see his words printed on the back of it.