I am reprising this story, first posted less than a month after I started blogging, on February 13, 2008. It's one of my favorites. And some readers may not go back that far.
Happy Valentine's Day.
I had just turned seven when our First Grade teacher, Miss Platt mentioned Valentine’s Day. In a few days, she told us, there would be a time set aside in class, when anyone who wanted to, could exchange valentines cards with their classmates. And maybe slip one to Miss Platt, who was beautiful, at least to a First Grader’s eyes. Which were the only eyes I had at the time.
The Valentine’s Day announcement created a buzz of excitement to our classroom. So much, in fact, that Miss Platt was forced to slam her yardstick down on her desk, returning us to our First Grade study of the alphabet. Every day, we’d learn a different letter, which meant if you missed a day, as I once did, you’d have trouble printing your entire name until the Review Period, which would take place after we’d finished learning “z.” Because of my absence, on the day they taught the letter “r”, there was a time there when I was writing my name, Eal Pomeantz.
I need to backtrack for a minute. The entire Saint Valentine’s Day experience was completely alien to our educational environment. From Nursery School till Elementary School graduation, I attended a Hebrew Day school, a religion-focused institution where we studied Hebrew subjects half a day, and an English curriculum the other half.
This was a hardcore Orthodox institution. I once got a month’s detention for slipping off-campus and partaking of a non-kosher hamburger. A number of my classmates went on to become ritual slaughterers, while others served as rabbis who oversaw the ritual slaughterers. It was not a place where you heard a lot about saints.
Regardless of the incongruity, Miss Platt said we’d have Valentine’s Day. Maybe she was a rebel, or maybe she was a romantic. All I knew was Miss Platt stirred up parts of a seven year-old boy that were not scheduled to arrive until later.
The recess talk was all about valentines. Who was giving, who was getting, and who’d be left out. As far as I could tell, the distribution would be limited; friends would exchange cards with friends, two or three valentines at the most. The boy-girl issue would not be a factor, the exception being the irresistible Miss Platt.
To say that I saw an opportunity suggests there was calculation involved. There wasn’t. I just spoke before I thought. And the words I spoke were these:
“I’m giving everyone a valentine.”
Mouths dropped. Everyone? Even the boy who had “accidents” in class and had to be hurried to the principal’s office to exchange his sodden pants for the telltale corduroy replacements?
The word spread like wildfire. I couldn’t back down if I wanted to. I was on record:
“Everyone’s getting a valentine.”
When I decided to write this, I searched my memory for the rationale behind this magnanimous gesture. And I came up with this.
Six weeks earlier, my father had died. Kidney failure, resulting from childhood rheumatic fever. After the required seven-day absence for the shiva period, I returned to school, where I got sympathetic looks from some classmates, while others avoided me, fearful of catching “Dead Dad” disease.
The bold or more curious ones approached, asking, “Did your father die?” I had to look them the in the eye and say, “Yes.” Except I didn’t look them in the eye. My eyes focused directly at the floor. The shame place.
As political consultants would say, I needed to retool my image. I needed a different kind of attention, and fate, via Miss Platt’s announcement, had led me to the answer.
“Everyone’s getting a valentine.”
I bought an inexpensive book filled with valentines. Two or three to a page, each bordered by perforated edges; you pressed the edges and the valentine popped out. On the back of each valentine were two dotted lines, one above the other. The top line was the “To”…line, the second line was the “From.”
I started writing out the cards, twenty-one in all, one for every student in my class.
“To Aryah from Earl.”
“To Zvi from Earl.”
The book contained a variety of valentines – a boy with a puppy, a girl with a basket of flowers, though all included bright, red hearts. I made little effort to match the cards to their recipients. This wasn’t a personal thing. It was about attention.
The next day, I walked into class, a large paper bag held proudly in my grasp. I could sense the excitement. Feeling all eyes on me, but acting like they weren’t, I “casually” took my seat, sliding the bag under my desk and folding my hands.
Awaiting My Moment.
Miss Platt tried to teach as if nothing was different. But it was Valentine’s Day and everything was different. My classmates struggled to draw my attention, seeking confirmation that they wouldn’t be left out.
“Am I getting one?” mouthed the kid with glasses who couldn’t catch.
I threw him a conformational wink.
“Am I getting one?” gestured the girl with the sizable birthmark on her cheek.
I smiled in the affirmative.
“Am I getting one?” mimed the kid with no friends.
I nodded a reassuring “Yes.”
Somehow, these surreptitious exchanges caught Miss Platt’s attention. She knew where to direct her rebuke.
“Earl. We have work to do. Valentines come later.”
Normally, I don’t take rebuke graciously. There’s usually blushing involved. But today was a playful day. Rather than apologize to Miss Platt for my transgression, I quipped,
“I’ve got one for you too.”
The class laughed. It’s easy to get laughs when you’ve got a bagful of valentines.
Finally, it was time. Miss Platt told us to put our books away. We could now exchange valentines. Kids got up and moved around the room, trading valentines with their friends. It took about a minute.
Then it was my turn.
Reaching under my desk, I picked up my paper bag, got up, and climbed up on my chair. Everyone gathered around. Including Miss Platt.
My Moment had arrived. Smiling beneficently, as I imagined Saint Valentine might have, I reached deep into my bag and brought out
…a chicken bone.
That was strange, I thought, and maybe said. I quickly returned to the bag, this time, bringing out
…a banana peel.
I heard grumbling. What’s going on? I was wondering the same thing. My third dip into the bag crystallized the situation precisely, as my hand emerged cradling…
…egg shells. Still sticky.
Mistakenly, I had left my valentines at home and I’d come to school with a bagful of trash.
I don’t remember crying or running out of the room, though I recall wanting to do both. Then, suddenly, this amazing thing happened.
Sure, some kids turned away, disappointed. Mine was the only valentine they were certain of, and I’d thuddingly let them down. But the majority, reading the agony in my face, rose gallantly to my support.
“Don’t feel bad,” comforted one.
“I’ll still be your friend,” reassured another.
“We like you.” That was kind of a group response.
Smiles of support pervaded the classroom. Though I’d pay the price in humiliation and shame, I was, surprisingly, receiving exactly what I’d been looking for – the good kind of attention. On some level, I knew their acceptance wasn’t just about the valentines that never arrived. It was also about my Dad. They wanted me to know it was okay.
The healing began, due to little Jews and Valentine’s Day.
A powerful combination.