Most people don’t think of the day after Valentine’s Day as anything special, unless they’re fans of St. Eusebius or a handful of other saints. Some of us don’t really think of Valentine’s Day itself as anything special, and in fact a couple of days before it my wife happened to say, “We haven’t got anything planned for that day, do we?” and I was so glad she said it because I didn’t have anything planned and if she’d been planning something special to celebrate the occasion I would have felt like a schmuck even though we’ve never celebrated it. It’s not like our anniversary which is much more personal and therefore much more special, but, on the other hand, stores don’t start stocking up on candy and hearts and flowers and cards and putting up big signs that say “Don’t forget YOUR ANNIVERSARY” the month before it happens.
I guess I’ve never thought of Valentine’s Day as particularly romantic because when I was a kid it wasn’t treated as a romantic occasion even though we did celebrate it if it happened to fall on a school day. In first through fifth grade I distinctly remember getting a pack of kids’ Valentine’s Day cards with a Star Wars theme or a superhero theme or maybe just some generic friendly theme. Every pack held thirty or forty cards, enough to give one to every one of my classmates, and the night before Valentine’s Day I’d dutifully write one out for every one of my classmates and the next day we’d exchange them. There wasn’t any love in the romantic sense being expressed; mostly it was just a way of saying, “Hey you, I know you.” One year, fourth grade, as a class project we each had to make a box that the other kids could drop our Valentine cards in. I’d just seen Disney’s Snow White so I based mine on the box the wicked queen tells the hunstman to put Snow White’s heart in, complete with a heart with a dagger through it, because nothing says “Valentine’s Day” like murder and the implication of cannibalism–in the Grimm version the huntsman brings the queen a deer’s heart and she, thinking it’s Snow White’s, eats it, but that’s another story. I wasn’t choosy about what the cards said but if there were some in the pack that had a somewhat personal message, like, “Hulk Never Smash You, Valentine!” I’d set those aside specifically for my friends, but I didn’t leave anybody in the class out—not even that one kid I barely knew even though we spent seven or eight hours a day together and who I’d once accidentally hit in the face during kickball, leading to a lot of crying and some bloodshed on both sides.
Everything changed in sixth grade.
Even looking back on it now from a great distance the sixth grade feels like a year of unrelenting bullying and harassment. Well, there was some relenting, but the budding hormones of adolescence and the fact that some kids were just assholes made it a pretty bad year. As a bit of a geek and an outsider I probably would have been a target anyway but I can almost pinpoint the moment that it started. I was reading Judy Blume’s Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and something confused me so I innocently asked a girl who was sitting across from me what a “period” was. Instead of answering me she just started giggling and ran around saying, “Chris doesn’t know what a period is!” And it became kind of a running joke. Some guys would taunt me with, “Hey Chris, do you know what a period is?” and I should have responded with “Yeah, it’s the dot at the end of a sentence, did you not know that?” or even “No, jackass, do you?” but those are the kinds of snappy comebacks you only think of after the statute of limitations has expired. Instead there was some crying and bloodshed on both sides.
I had friends so I wasn’t completely alone. I just spent a lot of time feeling like I was completely alone, especially when a particular group of bullies would surround me. They targeted my friends too sometimes but realizing that my friends and I were alone together would have been like thinking up a snappy comeback. My brain just couldn’t make those connections. All I could think of was how much I hated going to school each day.
The lowest point of the school year for me was the night before Valentine’s Day. I had the usual pack of forty cards. I picked out three and threw the rest away.
The next day I went to school with my three little cards. I was still taking my coat off when I heard a voice.
“Chris, this is for you.”
It was Danny, a kid I barely thought about, someone I’d never thought of as a friend exactly. I looked down at what he’d put in my hand. It was a card with Han Solo and Chewbacca that said, “Not even Darth Vader scares me with you around, Valentine!” He was gone before I could say anything and I was glad because I didn’t have anything for him. And that morning a dozen other kids whom I’d never considered friends–casual acquaintances at best–handed me Valentine’s Day cards. I felt like a schmuck, but the day after Valentine’s Day I felt a little better about going to school.