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Though this earth angel was only five, she taught him the meaning of love.
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.”