Remember that packet of assorted Valentine cards we used to buy at the dime store? We'd take them home and sort through them, hoping to find the perfect card to earmark for that special someone. You know who I mean, Charlie Brown's little red-headed girl, or Sally's Sweet Baboo. There was always at least one card obviously intended for the teacher (I used to wonder how many duplicates my teacher got each year, since there were usually only three or four different assortments available.)
When I was in grade school, the teacher usually provided a large box, often a hat box, that she covered with crepe paper (pink, red, or white) and decorated with cut-outs of cupids and hearts. There was a slot in the top to “mail” our valentines. By third or fourth grade, the responsibility of decorating the box had been delegated to a committee of students, though the decorations remained pretty much the same. This was probably because we had seen only a few such special mailboxes during our young lives and we tended to believe that there was some rule or at least a tradition as to how they should be decorated. And I definitely recall that there was a great deal more encouragement for conformity than there was for creativity during those years.
When afternoon recess was over with, we had the much-awaited party where we partook of heart shaped cookies somebody's mother had contributed, the teacher doled out candy hearts with messages printed on them, and several students were awarded the privilege of opening the mailbox and delivering the valentines to the addressees. A good many of the cards seemed to have been sent anonymously, due to either neglect or shyness, and it was possible to imagine that the most sentimental of the unsigned ones had been sent by a bashful admirer or (we could dream) the object of our own secret crush.
With often thirty-some children in each classroom, it wasn't likely that everyone would have an opportunity to be honored with this special duty and by third grade I, for one, decided to make sure that I got my chance to hand out valentines. My best friend Eleanor and I wrote a short play involving the Valentine Princess (me) and her faithful companion. I even conned my mother into making me a costume for the event and I ended up looking like a cross between the Queen of Hearts and a fairy godmother. We told the teacher that we had a special play we wanted to perform as part of the Valentine's Day party, and she agreed that we could do it while our classmates were enjoying their cookies. I can recall absolutely none of the plot or dialog of our performance except for my last line, “And now it's time for us to pass out the valentines.”
Our teacher, I think, went into shock for several minutes, because we managed to open the mailbox and scurry importantly around the room, distributing the cards until the job was about halfway done before she stopped us and tactfully said that we should enjoy our cookies and let someone else finish handing out the cards. Still in my role as Valentine Princess, I graciously acceded and went to my desk, still wearing my cardboard crown decorated with heart-shaped jewels and waving my wand that resembled an arrow piercing a pink paper heart. It was imperative that I remain in the character of the Valentine Princess, for to revert to myself would force me to admit that I was just a chubby eight-year-old girl who wanted to feel glamorous and important for just that one hour. When I was raising my own children and teaching other people's, I remembered how I felt that day. It's easy to overlook the importance, to children, of being involved in even the most ordinary activities– such things as collecting spelling papers or cleaning the chalkboard. To a child, being asked to help is a privilege, not a chore, and it does wonders for self-esteem. It's often a temptation to ask the most willing child, or the one with the experience to perform those little tasks. It may be more efficient, but when selecting one child the adult is also automatically rejecting the others.
By time we got to junior high, things had changed considerably. We still had a Valentine's Day party, and we still decorated a hatbox. It was still covered with crepe paper and decorated with hearts and cupids, but there was also a contest to see which homerooms had the most original and the prettiest mailboxes. These were judged by the principal herself and they spent several days displayed on the stage of the assembly hall and they all looked pretty much alike. I was usually on the committee but we never did win either of the prizes. I guess we had been well indoctrinated with what a Valentine Box was supposed to look like and couldn't imagine anything different.