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Valentine's Day Reconsidered

(Broken) Hearts and Flowers

Howard Carlin* and Diane Richards* sat at their fourth-grade desks, trying to pretend they didn't care about receiving only a couple of valentine cards. It was Valentine's Day card exchange time in Miss Peterson's class. I had put a card in each of their valentine card boxes and I guessed that my best friend, George Wright had done the same. The rest of the kids were chattering and giggling, comparing all the cards they had received -- the funniest, the anonymous ones with "I love you" written on top. Howard and Diane were conspicuously silent.

The children in my class called Howard "Stinky" and made fun of his oversized or undersized, less than fashionable, clothes. He often looked unkempt and his hair was rarely combed. Howard was one of ten children and times had become tough for the Carlin family. Diane was fat and spent a good deal of her time angrily yelling back at the kids who teased her unmercifully..."Hey Fatso!...Lardbutt!...Hippo!" Howard and Diane were always picked last on teams in gym, when the kids got to choose teams. They ate alone in the cafeteria on most days.

And now, on Valentine's Day, they were being reminded once again how alone they were, how much they were disliked. After seeing Howard and Diane's sad eyes that morning, I always dreaded Valentine's Day in school. I couldn't understand why we had to do something that never failed to hurt some kids' feelings.

Decades later my own children observed the same Valentine's Day card exchange in elementary school. I allowed them to participate in this ritual I deplored. I didn't want to take away the pure, innocent enjoyment that they derived from giving and receiving cards. But I told them about Howard and Diane and they assured me that they would give cards to everyone in their class. Every year they would report sadly who had received only a few Valentine cards.

A more elaborate Valentine's Day custom was observed when my children entered middle school. As a school fundraiser, students were encouraged to purchase carnations and to send them to their classmates during the school day. This tradition continued throughout high school The colors of the carnations were of great significance - white carnations were sent to friends, pink were sent to those you "liked" and red carnations were reserved for those you loved. Sweethearts, pretty girls, cute boys, best friends and the "popular group" always took home multi-colored bouquets while others received not a stem.

This romanticized version of the card exchange created visible winners and losers. Receiving flowers meant you had friends and kids who liked and loved you. Coming up flowerless branded you with the scarlet "L." Is it any wonder that some kids secretly resorted to sending themselves carnations, while others chose not to attend school that day, feigning sickness rather than risk humiliation. Do you remember when you were a teenager how desperate you were to be popular, to have friends, to be liked, and to be loved?

I'm not suggesting that we rip the heart out of Valentine's Day. I'm merely asking school administrators, teachers, parents, and students to consider eliminating Valentine's Day school customs that break some children's hearts. Exchange cards, flowers, candy, and gifts off school grounds. Let elementary school students make homemade valentines and bring them to a family shelter or a children's hospital. Middle-schoolers and high- schoolers can buy flowers, candy or teddy bears as a fundraiser and distribute them at area food pantries, nursing homes and hospices. No school tradition should bring with it the risk of hurting a child. If any Valentine's Day traditions are to be observed in school, let them involve all our children practicing acts of kindness and goodwill to others.

* These names were changed.

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