GUEST COLUMN: The ritual of school Valentines fraught with pride, envy

Norma West Linder

When I was in elementary school, Valentine’s Day was a popularity contest.

My attic is crammed with mementos — including a box of ancient Valentines. The children pictured on them resemble the legendary Campbell’s Soup kids. The verses are coy, imbued with the innocence of the late 1930s.

One of them, featuring a smiling black-haired girl reads: I like to roll my little hoop/I find it quite consoling/but I am happiest of all/when my eyes at you I’m rolling.

Most of my cards containing passionate declarations of love are from other girls. One of them, however, depicts a bullfighter with cape-bearing moveable arms. On the bottom it says, “I love you and that’s no bull.” Signed with a question mark, it undoubtedly gave rise to hours of ecstatic speculation.

The cards bring with them a flood of memories. I’m back in my old schoolroom, under the surveillance of King George the Sixth and Queen Elizabeth.

The air is electric with anticipation. A huge box decorated with red and white crepe paper occupies a place of honour in the centre of the teacher’s desk. It has a large slot in the middle where we have been ‘mailing’ our valentines all week. The longed-for moment arrives.

A boy and girl are chosen to be mail carriers, the first card is delivered, and our Valentine’s Day party officially begins.

“You made your own cards, eh!”

Blushing, I nod to the girl across from me. She tells me they’re really nice, but I know she’s lying. My sister and I have spent hours cutting cards out of our father’s old wallpaper sample books, but they aren’t as pretty as the boughten ones.

At last, all the cards have been given out. Calculating glances measure each pile on every desk.

“How many did you get?” the girl beside me demands.

“Seventeen,” I reply, exaggerating more than a little.

“I got twenty-eight,” she brags.

Consumed with envy, I begin stuffing my cards into a big envelope I have decorated when she interrupts me to ask who the big red heart is from.

“Wouldn’t you like to know,” I reply enigmatically.

“Come on, who’s it from. I won’t tell anybody.”

It’s a great feeling to have a secret from somebody a grade ahead of me. I’m enjoying myself when the boy behind me spoils everything.

“It’s from the teacher,” he says. “I have one just like it.”

Suddenly, I’m anxious for the four o’clock bell to ring.

Norma West Linder is an internationally published poet and novelist in Sarnia