Howard Carlin* and Linda Richards* sat motionless at their third-grade desks, heads and shoulders bowed, eyes downcast, wishing they could disappear
It was Valentine's Day card exchange time in Miss Peterson's class. Howard and Linda were pretending they didn't care about having received only two Valentine's cards from their sixteen classmates. I had slipped cards through both their Valentine's card box slots. So had my best friend, George Wright. No one else did.
Kids were chattering and giggling, comparing the cards they had received -- the funniest, the anonymous ones with "I love you" written on the back. Howard and Linda were conspicuously silent.
Children called Howard, "Stinky," whispered about his obviously undersized or oversized clothes and ignored him at recess. On most school days, Howard was disheveled, a Dickens street urchin. Howard was one of ten children. My mother had told me the Carlins were "going through some tough times."
Linda was quite fat. No clothes could hide that. Kids unmercifully teased and taunted her, especially at recess when they ran away from her, yelling "fatso!, lardbutt!, hippo!" Linda looked either sad or angry and she moved in quirky, abrupt bursts, as if she was always in a hurry.
Howard and Linda were picked last on teams in gym. They ate alone in the cafeteria. And now, on Valentine's Day, they were starkly reminded again how alone they were, how different they were, how much they were disliked. After seeing Howard and Linda's sad eyes that morning, I forever dreaded Valentine's Day in school. I could not understand why we had to do something that never failed to hurt some children's feelings.
Decades later my children observed the same Valentine's Day card exchange in elementary school. I allowed them to participate in the ritual I deplored. I didn't want to take away the pure, innocent delight they derived from giving and receiving cards. I had told them about Howard and Linda and they promised me they would give cards to all their classmates. But every year they would report sadly which children received only a few cards.
A more elaborate Valentine's Day custom was observed when my children entered middle school. As a school fundraiser, students were encouraged to purchase carnations and to send them to their classmates during the school day. This tradition continued throughout high school. The carnations' colors were of great significance - white carnations were sent to friends, pink were sent to those you liked and red carnations were reserved for those you loved. Sweethearts, pretty girls, cute boys and the "popular kids" took home multicolored bouquets while the others received not a stem.
This romanticized version of the card exchange created highly visible winners and losers. Receiving flowers meant you had friends, kids who liked and even loved you. Coming up flowerless branded you with the scarlet "L." Is it any wonder that some kids secretly resorted to sending themselves flowers, while others chose not to attend school that day, feigning sickness rather than risking humiliation. Do you remember when you were a teenager how desperate you were to have friends, to be liked, to be popular, to be loved? I do.
I'm not the Valentine Grinch, trying to rip the heart out of Valentine's Day. I'm merely asking school administrators, teachers, parents and students to consider eliminating Valentine's Day school rituals that break some children's hearts. Exchange cards, flowers, candy and gifts off school grounds. Let elementary school students make homemade valentines and bring them to a family shelter or a children's hospital ward. Middle-schoolers and high-schoolers can still raise money for charities by purchasing flowers, candy and gifts and distributing them to nursing homes and orphanages.
No school tradition should bring with it the risk of hurting a child. If any Valentine's Day customs are to be observed in school, let them involve all our children practicing acts of kindness to others.
And Howard and Linda, if you're there... Happy Valentine's Day.
* These names were changed.