The Old Coot and the Valentine’s Day massacre

It’s Valentine’s Day as I write this. Martha Stewart just demonstrated how to make French Toast on the CBS Sunday Morning Show (my mother called it egg toast when she made it). 

Martha’s process was a complicated one, adding ten ingredients to the eggs and topping it off with a splash of Grand Marnier. My mother’s egg toast was made with beaten eggs and a dash of milk. Plain old store bought bread was dipped in the eggs and fried. Martha Stewart sliced off thick slabs from a crusty baguette.

Ok, I’m no Martha Stewart, but that’s not the point of this rambling. The point came to me when Martha talked about her schooldays, when she and her CLASSMATES handed Valentines to each other. 

That term, “Classmates, “got caught in my old coot filter. It’s a word I never used, or heard when I was growing up. We simply said – kids in our class. We speak a slightly different language, us people of vintage age. We never said siblings either; we had brothers and sisters, not sibs. Just like today; we don’t use the word spouse; it’s husband or wife. We’re out of step; but our Valentine’s Day had much greater significance than it does today.

Back then Valentine’s Day was a report card, an annual evaluation of our behavior by our peers. A kid in class, in our case Phyllis Otis, brought in a cardboard box decorated with red and white crepe paper with a heart shaped slot in the top a week before the big day. It was perched on a table at the front of the room.

Each morning we were allowed to make a deposit. I, like the rest of the “chickens,” would drop in one or two joke cards every day or so. A special card for a heartthrob never made it until the very last day, if it made it at all. 

A few times in my years at grade school I mustered enough courage to buy a mushy card, sign it, and bring it to class, only to answer the dismissal bell with it safely hidden in my pocket. 

When the big day came, the box seemed to glow and vibrate, as though alive, holding its secrets in silence. The teacher called a halt to formal classroom activity late in the afternoon. Homemade cookies and glasses of juice were passed around. The box was moved to her desk, the lid opened, and the distribution ritual began. 

One by one, valentines were pulled from the box. She (all teachers were women in my school) called out the name on the envelope, and when summoned, we made our way to the front of the room, grabbed the treasure with a sweaty hand and sheepishly returned to our seats, depositing the card on the top of our desk unopened. 

After fetching our “first” card of the day we breathed a sigh of relief, knowing we would not suffer the humiliation of “getting stiffed” by the entire class. The respite was brief, and the tension returned as we remembered the sentimental mushy card we had signed, sealed and deposited in the box.

Valentine’s Day was a day of atonement. If you’d been a jerk, teased the girls, overdid the “double-dares” to the boys or was a tattletale, then it was likely you could sit through the entire valentine distribution ritual without hearing your name. You became a victim of a Saint Valentine’s Day massacre. Then you learned the meaning of, “You reap what you sow.” 

It’s different today; kids are required to bring a valentine for every kid in class. They miss out on a valuable life lesson.

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