14 February 2006

"Will You Be My Valentine?"

I guess we were pretty typical as mid-60s elementary school kids.

The boys wore their hair short and parted to one side or the other. The occasional cowlick or bowl cut appeared. They wore button-down shirts—often "cowboy shirts" with piping—and pressed troussers (often courderoy in this winter season, or wool). The girls were in dresses, skirts and blouses, or jumpers. Short hair was popular (especially with moms who had to wash that hair), held back with a headband. They wore sturdy Oxfords or Hush Puppies, or strap shoes. A few extroverts whose moms allowed it wore patent leather dress shoes and might have had their hair permed. Ringlets were still popular, too, and hair bows. To stay warm during a long walk to school or at recess, the girls often wore snow pants under their dresses; these came off in the morning along with the thick winter coats and hats and scarves and rubber boots that fit over your shoes and were stowed in the chaos known as the cloakroom behind folding bulletin-board doors.

Valentine’s Day didn’t start immediately after Christmas as it does now. Yuletide was allowed to wind down past the new year before the candy started to appear, but it was only at the tail end of January and into February that schoolchildren started to gear up by surveying what classroom valentines were for sale in the eternal delight of the 60s child, "the five and ten"—Woolworths, Newberrys, McCrory, Ben Franklin, and whatever other local store plied the trade.

The least expensive Valentines, most endorsed by Mom, were just plain little hearts and cupids and other cartoon-like boys and girls or animals wishing each other a happy day or professing love or affection. Girls' Valentines featured dolls, flowers, cute animals, and lots of hearts. Boys' Valentines would more likely have their youthful protagonist in a train engineer's uniform or spacesuit, or would feature trains, cars, airplanes, or construction equipment. Specialty cards, like those with Disney characters or the cartoon heroes of the day like Yogi Bear and Huckleberry Hound, or theme cards involving real-life race cars or spaceships or television programs were pricier. There was always one, larger Valentine in the box reserved for the teacher; the most common design was some sort of a blackboard with the message written in white "chalk." These were purchased and (sometimes) laboriously signedover and over for twenty to thirty classmates until the day you could dump them in the big box on the teacher’s desk. (Mom always insisted you make out one for everyone in the class, even the kids you didn’t like, so it would be "fair.") In the lower grades, the teacher decorated the box herself, usually with white or pink construction paper. White was favored since then the hearts could be made in both pink and white, and on it in red crayon would be neatly printed the grade and the teacher’s name.

As you grew older the teacher would allow the best artist in the class to decorate the big box. It was an honor to encrust the box with layered hearts or tissue paper flowers, although some students always wanted input on the design.

One February art class closest to the fourteenth was always reserved for making Valentine cards for your mom and dad. Copious piles of white, pink, and red construction paper (sometimes black was added for a cool shadow effect) were plied into service. Sometimes the teacher purchased foil-like cupids or hearts to embellish each card, and lace paper doilies were always a favorite for backgrounds for mothers' cards. Some kids brought in magazine cuttings to further add to the decorative effect. Twenty-five children wielded twenty-five snub-nosed scissors, folding a red sheet in half and carefully reproducing the lopsided teardrop shape with the flat side that would open up into a really-truly heart. The more ambitious children cut odd shapes from the edge and the interior of the folded heart and what unfolded was a confection in "lace" design. These hearts, plain or cut-out, were layered with smaller or larger hearts and then stacked together permanently with the inevitable paste (the flicking paste brush sending bits of white everywhere, including on the clothing and hair of unsuspecting classmates) and cheerfully crayoned with greetings.

We also cut out hearts, again both the plain and lacy variety, to decorate the bulletin board at the back of the room or on the pivoting cloakroom doors, white or red scalloped edges surrounding our best designs.

Later, at home, you would happily hand the now-stiff hand-fashioned card to Mom and/or Dad with a proud "Happy Valentines Day!" and Mom and Dad would admire it and then set it on top of the television console or on the kitchen table, leaned up against the vase of flowers Dad had brought for Mom so everyone could see it. If you were lucky, Dad would take Mom out to dinner and you could come, too, although in most households this was postponed to the Sunday closest to the holiday. Still fresh in your Sunday dress or suit, you'd all troup out to a nice restaurant whene the waiters wore suits and there were cloth napkins instead of paper ones and white tablecloths.

In that Valentine afternoon at school, however, you had received your own haul. The Valentine box was opened and the cards distributed. A few girls shyly smiled at a few boys, and a few boys embarrassedly tucked special Valentines away. There was the constant squeal of a few girls who had received sarcastic comic cards from the few whose moms had not supervised their card purchases and were sticking their tongues out at the guilty, laughing boys. Afterwards, there might be cupcakes and punch or some chocolates Hershey kisses and then it was time to run home and show Mom your cards (after carefully anointing a chosen favorite classmate with that ultimate winter valentine, a snowball!).

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