My first experience with Valentine’s Day was a perplexing one.
At the age of 7, I arrived in the United States (from the Soviet Union) with my parents on January 19. I started school. Less than a month later, everyone in my class gave me a flurry of pink and red cards, some of them heart-shaped. I didn’t have anything for my classmates, and I didn’t exactly know what was going on, in any case. So I came home and taped the cards up on my bedroom walls, like decorations. For the rest of the school year, people would periodically give me other cards, this time not necessarily in pink or red or heart-shaped, but looking enough like the first set that I dutifully went home and taped them to my walls, too. It wasn’t until I learned to speak (then read) English, that I realized the latter were birthday party invitations I had never responded to, and that the former were for something called St. Valentine’s Day.
It was a Jewish Day School, by the way, but, in subsequent years, I got with the program, never giving a lot of thought to what the whole experience is like from a parental point of view.
I’m a parent now. And here is something else I’ve learned about Valentine’s Day. It is even more complicated than I could have possibly imagined.
My oldest, artistically inclined son wanted to make each card himself. Individually. And he wanted to address each one himself, too. He was four years old and couldn’t write.
So not only did we spend days buried under card stock and glue, we then spent hours with me painstakingly reading out each letter in each name of everyone in his class, while he copied it down. Then signed his name.
A year later, at five, he gave into my pleas to buy pre-made cards, but he still wanted to hand-address them all. And he didn’t want to limit himself to kids in his class. He wanted cards for all of his teachers. And the front office. And the janitorial staff. (There is still one teacher with a fourteen letter last name that I cannot forgive for getting married and taking her husband’s much shorter name a few weeks later. Where was she when I needed her?)
With his younger brother, we had no such problems. He didn’t want to make his own cards. He didn’t want to address his own cards. He didn’t want to do cards at all. Period.
“I just don’t want to.”
I tried talking to him. My mother tried talking to him. His teachers tried talking to him.
But, like Bartlby the Scrivener, he would still prefer not to.
We tried telling him that everyone else would be doing it. (I know, not your customary parental argument, but desperate times called for desperate measures.) We tried telling him that other boys might feel bad. We tried telling him it wasn’t nice to take something and not give back in return.
Nope. Nothing doing.
And then, the morning of Valentine’s Day, he woke up with a fever. Not an I-put-a-thermometer-next-to-the-light-bulb-fever, but a real, honest-to-goodness, too-sick-to-go-to school fever. So the problem solved itself. I guess.
The next year, I braced myself for another battle. But, this time around, he was perfectly happy to exchange Valentines.
We have no more idea about that than we do about why he didn’t the previous year.
Two years went by without incident. And then, third grade. I’ve written about third grade . Third grade was not a good year. My son’s arch-enemy was in his class. And my son was perfectly willing to hand out Valentines… to everyone but him.
On the one hand, I believe in letting my children make their own decisions – and their own friends. On the other hand, this was hardly going to make the situation between those two feuding boys any better.
On the one hand, we teach our children to follow the rules at school. And the rules say if you give a Valentine to anybody, you must give one to everybody. On the other hand, who says blind, unthinking obedience to authority is such a great thing? (Not this Soviet-born mother!)
Except that–full confession time–I was already in enough trouble with the teacher (we were having chats practically every week about my son’s behavior and attitude). I did not want to be in trouble over this, too.
I had too many other things on my plate. So I made him go against his own instincts and give that Valentine. I agonized over the right thing to do. Then, while writing this post, I asked him, “So whatever happened with that Valentine you gave X last year?”
“Oh,” my son shrugged. “I don’t remember.”
Good thing I was so worried.
Now, my youngest daughter is at Jewish Day School. This school made it clear right from the start that they don’t celebrate “Hallmark holidays.” Only Jewish ones.
I was totally on board with that.
My daughter is not.
Last year, she was very upset to see her brother (who didn’t even want to do it!) come home with cards and chocolates (which, to be fair, he shared), while she stood by empty-handed. She’d exchanged Valentine’s in pre-school (look at that smile in the photo), so why not know?
Well, you see, sweetie, Valentine was a Christian saint… although the legend actually goes back further than that… possibly to an ancient Roman fertility festival and…
But she’s in Kindergarten. She doesn’t care about fertility festivals. She wants cards and candy!
This year, we’re ready for the onslaught. My oldest is a teen-ager. His romantic life is completely up to him now. His brother is in middle school. No more mandatory Valentine exchanges.
And my daughter won’t be celebrating in school, but she will be getting something for Valentine’s Day… from her Daddy.
Who loves her.