I remember my Valentine's Day childhood parties well, even though these days it seems like a hundred years ago. I went to a lot of different elementary schools so the parties are distinct, rather than a blur of similarity of places and people.
There were a lot of common points, though, regardless of place.
We'd sit at our desks---the old-fashioned kind (now) with the wood top, attached by a metal bar to the hard, slick wood seat (one size fits all, hard for smaller bottoms). The cubby was underneath the seat, so children's heads tended to bob down as if going under water to get a fresh pencil. We'd have ants in our pants, the teacher would say, because not one of us could sit still. Every now and again a child, usually a boy, would explode up from his desk, no longer able to sit at all, and the teacher, resigned to this sort of thing, would say something like, "Mark...Mark, what are you doing up?"
And poor Mark, a victim of a heady case of excitement beyond his control, would say, "I need to sharpen my pencil!"
The teacher would say, "You sharpened that pencil two minutes ago."
Mark would pause, scratch his head, shuffle for a reply.
The kind teachers would give in, help him save face, and say, "Oh go ahead, sharpen it, but walk!"
The room on those days would smell even more vividly of wood and lead shavings, overlaying the mingled odors of many thrilled children and the sharp acidic scent of chalk dust.
At some point, a mom's face would appear in the door window, and the teacher would gesture for her to come in. Smiling, carrying a tray, the mom (and maybe one or two others at the suburban middle-class schools) would enter, slightly tentatively, unused to being in the classroom, their own childhoods and classroom experiences fresh on their memories. Smell is one of the best agents of memory, they say, and classrooms are so full of smells.
"Where should we put this?" the mom would ask, and the teacher would gesture to the cleared reading table.
The teacher lead the party in those days, when I was a child. The children waited at their desks, impatient and trying hard to listen to the directions.
We smelled the cupcakes, or the cookies, and we knew that in the cubby under our desks were little boxes we'd painstakingly decorated, full of Valentine's we couldn't wait to hand out to our friends.
The teacher would tell us to put our boxes on our desks, and then, in orderly lines, we were to walk up and down the rows dropping each Valentine into each box. Once finished, we sat back at our own chairs, and the moms wold start handing out the treats. In my mind, it was usually cupcakes, maybe because I love those best of all.
While we ate, we go to read through our Valentine's. Back then, some were the store bought little paper ones, but at least half were still handmade. The store bought ones were considered cool...because they came printed, like formal cards, and had popular characters of the day on them. One year every single boy handed out Star Wars cards, with photos of a grave Luke wielding a light saber and stating, "May the force of love be with you."
After cupcakes, and after we'd been instructed to put all our cards back in our boxes---mine always had a paper doily red heart, usually very similar to other kids because back then, we often decorated our boxes in class as an art project---to show our parents later, after the boxes were tucked back into our cubby under our desk...the teacher would hand out her gift, usually lollipops, the sort with a looped handle instead of a stick, the sort with blurry white printed messages on them. If you licked just enough but not too much, you could usually make out the "Happy Valentines!" message on it (no space for "day").
Sometimes one mom brought a box of Necco candy message hearts. I never liked this candy much, but I loved the secret messages on each one. Also, in late elementary school we had devised a fun game for those hearts.
After the party, the teacher and moms would shoo the hyped up on sugar kids outside to run. We loved this extra recess and fun, plus the fact that normally it was forbidden added an element of extra thrill. The moms and teacher would stand on the side, sometimes nibbling on leftover cupcakes (or cookies) and chat, probably about how funny sugared up kids are or maybe reminiscing about their own childhood parties.
My friends and I would gather in a circle and show our hands, in which we had secretly clutched our candy hearts.
"I got Be Mine," Lori triumphantly said.
We all ooohed because that was the best one.
"Be True," I said, slightly disappointed.
"Kiss Me!" Kelly said happily. This was a big score for her, because it carried a huge fear factor.
"I think mine says Call Me," Shannon said. We leaned in to try to read it, but couldn't quite agree, maybe out of sympathy for Shannon because Call Me was the worst one.
"Wildcard," Lori announced, sure in her answer, positive we'd follow her lead.
"Wildcard!" we cried and Shannon smiled.
"I choose BE MINE!"
We all giggled and Shannon and Lori linked arms.
"Okay," Kelly said, and we turned and ran.
Shannon and Lori chased Mark and Chris, screaming, "BE MINE!!!"
I ran after a random clutch of boys, shouting, "BE TRUE!"
"KISS ME KISS ME KISS ME!" Kelly shrieked, clamboring up the slide.
Whoever the Be Mine girls caught had to be theirs for the rest of the day, a slave to their whims. Lori caught Mark, and she demanded that he get on all fours and bark like a dog, which he readily---and happily---did. I caught Chris and made him eat the Be True candy, which acted as a truth serum in our game and meant he had to tell the truth the rest of the day.
"Who is smarter?" I demanded, "Me or Kelly?"
Kelly ran by just then. She yelled, "I am so KISS ME!" I noticed she didn't latch on to any one boy and simply caught and released them one by one. The boys ran, terrified and yet---underneath---thrilled when caught. After she released them, they were triumphant, "HA! I got away!" They'd run, taunting her to chase them again.
Shannon tried to convince Mike to comply with the Be Mine demand, but he would not go along.
When recess ended, we were exhausted and happy. We packed our bags to head home, enjoying the secret cards in our pretty boxes---something more interesting than the usual homework.
It was the best day, and seemed a million miles in either direction from Christmas and Easter, both of which we openly celebrated at public schools back then.
Holidays seem so different now. They are planned, more elaborate. The moms seem overly familiar with the classroom, and the teacher stands to the side, while the moms put the kids through activity paces on a timetable. Store bought cards are so de rigeur that fancy, crafty "scrapbooking moms" make beautiful homemade ones, and those carry cache. The teachers may hand out lollipops, but they are lost in the sea of lollipop bouquets, M&Ms, and Oriental Trading Co gift bags. The little Valentine's cards are carelessly tossed aside as impediments to the candy or gift.
"Look honey," I try to capture my four year old's attention, "Look at the cute card from this friend!"
"Another lollipop!" she says instead, "A heart with a heart drawn on it!"
I sigh, and consider that her bounty is bountiful indeed.
I recall keeping my box of Valentine's, with warm friendship wishes, under my bed for months. On down days, I'd take it out, and remember the fun, and the friendship.
I have only sent my kids in with little cards. They are cool, the 3-D ones that change pictures, but there is no pencil, eraser or candy attached. Just a warm wish of friendship.
At my younger daughter's party yesterday, I stood beside another mom who looked anxiously at the collection of elaborate Valentine's.
"I only sent in little cards!" she said.
"Me too," I said. The I thought how it was the babysitter, not me, who had helped my kids with their cards and boxes. Valentine's fell on a particularly crazy busy week this year, when my hands---and calendar---were overly full. My husband and I are delaying our own celebration until sometime in March, when things so far look calmer.
We're so busy these days---the general us, I mean, as well as my family specifically---and we try so hard for the children, to make it incredibly exciting, this burst of attention and special day with fun event. For me, that meant squeezing in an attendance at the party on a day when I had deadlines. It was worth it when my daughter raced full speed ahead at me and slammed into my legs in joy. For others it meant sending in a fancy batch of Valentine's.
"It's okay," I assured the other mom, "It all matters, and we all have different things we add in, all in different ways. After the candy is gone, my daughter will hang on to the cards, and she'll enjoy those for a long time to come."
The other mom smiled at me, and I thought that's one thing that won't change: the children's anticipation of this day and event, and their joy and pleasure of it.
It's only the next day, but the candy is already gone (eaten or ahem disposed of) and my daughter has lined up her cards on her little art table. She gazes at them, rearranges them, and touches them every time she passes by.
That's another thing that never changes, either.
Happy Valentine's Day. Be true.