For Valentine’s Day in fourth grade I made a replica of the Evil Queen’s Heart Box from Disney’s Snow White. Did I somehow relate to the Evil Queen? Did I have a grudge against someone in my fourth grade class who I felt was pushing me aside? Did I want to order someone else to cut out that person’s heart and serve it to me in a box so I could eat it? The answer to all of the above is no. I liked everybody in my fourth grade class, which was good because there were twenty or so of us packed into one of those oversized trailers we called “portables” even though the showed no signs of going anywhere. I wouldn’t say we were all friends, but we were all friendly enough with each other that when Valentine’s Day came around I had to make sure to get enough cards to give one to everybody in my class, with a few extras for friends who were in other classes, so we could exchange our cards on the morning bus ride.
I made the box because we had a great teacher, Ms. Rich, who was always coming up with fun, creative projects, and for Valentine’s Day she said we should each make a box we could put on our desk. That way instead of passing cards around individually—and potentially someone feeling left out if they didn’t get one from someone else—everyone could just put cards in everyone else’s boxes.
I should also have said sooner that calling my heart box a “replica” of the Evil Queen’s is more than a bit presumptuous. The truth is I took a shoebox and covered it with some red construction paper, then I took some yellow construction paper and cut out a heart, and, for the finishing touch, took a tiny plastic cocktail sword and pierced the heart with it. It wasn’t that great but I liked it and it was good enough to hold a bunch of cards I was going to throw away anyway.
Two years later I wished I still had it. Most of us in sixth grade were getting too old for the Valentine’s Day tradition of giving all our classmates cards. In fact I’d realized at that point that getting older was a process of attrition, with things gradually getting worse. Sixth grade was the year I had to think about where I sat on the bus. I had to figure out where Kevin was and make sure he got off first or I’d be tripped, kicked, or punched as I went by him. Kevin was in my class but he wasn’t getting a Valentine’s Day card from me. Neither were a lot of other kids. I’d gotten a pack of twenty Superman-themed cards—I preferred, and still prefer, Spider-Man but he wasn’t popular enough at the time to be part of Valentine’s Day—and threw away about fifteen of them.
I wouldn’t have taken my heart box to school but I wished I still had it because, on the cusp of puberty, when it seemed like everything was destined to get worse, I felt an intense nostalgia for the way things had been. In fact I did kind of relate to the Evil Queen from Snow White, who, more than anything else, fears getting older . And I kind of wish I still had it now, as a reminder that the past is a box that’s full of some good things and some bad, and that, eventually, things did get better.