When I was in grade school, Valentine’s Day, like Halloween, Christmas Day, and the Last Day of School, was a red-letter day in the Kid Calendar. It wasn’t just because three of those days involved free candy, either. Instead, Valentine’s Day was special because you got a tangible indication of your schoolhouse popularity. For awkward and unpopular kids, it was a nerve-wracking day.
The focus of hope and potential disappointment was your Valentine’s Day card box. I don’t know whether schools allow them anymore, in this treat-everyone-equally-for-empty-self-esteem-purposes age. Back in the more rough-and-tumble early ’60s, however, every kid made a Valentine’s Day box and brought it to class. The boxes were gaily decorated with red tissue paper or leftover Christmas wrapping paper and hearts, cupids, and doilies, and making them was a big deal. One year I used aluminum foil, aiming for a cool, space-age Valentine’s Day tribute to the Gemini astronauts. Another year, in my quest for a good box, I found one with a flip-top lid in my parents’ closet that would have opened up like an old-fashioned mailbox, rather than requiring you to cut a slot in the top. I asked my very modest mother if I could use that box for Valentine’s Day, but she snatched it away with horror and said she’d find another. At the time, of course, I didn’t have a clue about what a tampon was.
While you were working on your box, you also prepared the small cardboard cards made specifically for schoolkid purposes. They had generic, non-romantic messages and came on a perforated sheet that you separated and put into cheap envelopes that had the worst-tasting glue in the world on the flap. Usually there were one or two bigger, better cards in the box, too. These were reserved for that special someone, perhaps with a piece of candy taped to the envelope.
When Valentine’s Day arrived, the boxes and cards were brought to class, and the boxes were lined up in a row on the windowsill. During the day kids would walk down the box line, putting cards in some boxes but often not others. As the lunch hour approached, you’d casually find a reason to walk past your box, hoping to see signs that there were envelopes inside. At the end of the day, though, you’d open the box and see where you really stood with your classmates. Some boxes were full to bursting, others were empty except for the obligatory card from teacher and cards from the kids whose parents made them give cards to everyone. I just hoped for something in between.