I’m wearing pink today – I can’t help it. More than 20 years of Valentine’s Day in schools is pretty ingrained in me. I’ve done all sorts of activities in the classroom over the years – the best being the start of a sonnet-writing unit many years ago – until the curriculum was so overloaded that there often wasn’t a logical break from close reading and literary essay work to spend time on hearts and flowers. I’ve given out scads of candy, until we weren’t allowed to anymore; the substitute, a Valentine’s pencil or eraser. just wasn’t the same, though kids love just about anything you give them.
The truth is, Valentine’s Day is a Hallmark holiday, and, for many, vastly overrated, although, at the same time, we want to be acknowledged and noticed – and, of course, loved. Some kids brought little Valentine’s bags of chocolate to share with their friends in the lunchroom; parents would sometimes drop off munchkins or cupcakes, to be delivered to their children. Some years, Student Council ran a Valentine’s Day fundraiser; students could buy roses or balloons and have them delivered to their friends’ homerooms. Sometimes, those friends were today’s boyfriends or girlfriends; as middle schoolers, those relationships could be all over by the next day.
Of course, in that very lunchroom, in that homeroom, were kids who weren’t receiving any sweets or other gifts at school, and sometimes, they weren’t getting any at home, either.
My own story was one I told the students every year, usually long before Valentine’s Day, as we prepared to write memoirs. One very successful writing prompt had students draw a type of number line in their writer’s notebooks. On one side were the various hurts to the heart they had received in their short lives, and on the other – hopefully – were the times when good things had happened to them. You didn’t have to have an equal number on each side; the aim was for students to find some small moments in their lives that meant something to them and to write off (about) one of these moments in a longer notebook entry, which might be the basis, eventually, for a more formal memoir.
Once in a while, students would call me over and say that there weren’t anything negative or hurtful that had happened to them, which was really quite amazing, and wonderful, and I wished them more of the same in their lives. The other side was true as well; students would call me over to say that there was absolutely nothing positive that had happened to them in their lives so far. We would brainstorm together and, sometimes, find something: the day a sister or brother was born, or the day they did well on a math test for the first time. But there were times when it was all about the aches in those hearts, and there wasn’t anything to do but to write about them, and hope that the act of writing was a balm, of sorts.
For those students, especially, I always told my Valentine’s Day story. Modeling is how I not only showed students what I expected in their thinking and writing, but also how I showed students how I went deep, even if it hurt.
It so happened that my story took place in seventh grade – the very grade my students were in. As I explained to them, when I was in elementary school, I had the same small group of close friends; in sixth grade, though, when we entered middle school, we started to be dispersed among the various classes and began to meet new people – just as my students had. My close friends Joyce and Ellen had met a new girl, Carol (which happened to be my name as well) in sixth grade, but I didn’t really know her then, as I wasn’t in any of her classes. In seventh grade, though, we were all together in homeroom and in at least a couple of other classes.
I think I saw, immediately, that we had much in common – especially in terms of writing – and yet because of that, perhaps, there was also competitiveness and jealousy. I knew Joyce and Ellen longer, but they had secrets with Carol from their time in sixth grade, which made me feel left out. I felt that something just wasn’t quite right between Carol and me. Of course, it might have been that we might never be friends, but I felt that we could.
My students would listen, riveted. I always found it amazing how difficult it was for my students to see their teachers as kids themselves at one time. But whenever I shared a story – almost always, towards a writing lesson – it helped them to see me as not only a kid, but a human being. And human beings can get hurt.
What happened that Valentine’s Day was simple: Carol decided to give out little Valentine’s cards that year. As I explained to my students, even in my day (when dinosaurs roamed the planet), we had stopped giving out Valentine’s cards to our whole class; we were far too cool for that. But Carol’s card were cute, and because not many, if anyone, did this anymore, it was a big deal when she handed them out to everyone.
Except to me.
No, it wasn’t a mistake: Carol had intentionally skipped me – that much was clear. At that point, as I told the story, I wouldn’t have to go any further to explain that feeling of hurt I had, that feeling of being left out, because my students got it, even the most “popular” ones. The only one not to get a card? The only one?
I barely could contain my sadness on my way home from school; I remember walking on my own, though I usually walked with my friends. I knew that if I talked to them, I would start to cry.
When I got home, of course, it all spilled out, with my tears. As my mother listened, she asked me a simple question: “Did you ask her why she left you out?”
No, I had not – I hadn’t even thought of it. She suggested I do just that.
So the next day, I dragged myself over to Carol, and I asked her. Her answer? “Because you don’t like me.”
I was incredulous. “I like you. You don’t like me!”
And so we went, back and forth. Somehow, each of us had gotten a different impression of the other, and we had been holding it in for so long.
And so, that day, we became friends – real friends. And we are still friends today – many, many years later.
In that story, I pulled up all sorts of things together for my students: the importance of not keeping things in, whether spoken or written; the realization that others have been hurt, have hurt others, and are hurting today, right this very minute. And – of course – the importance of including others, whenever you can.
Thus, the page from one student’s literary scrapbook, above. Effects on Others is one way to help students analyze characters in literature. What effects do others have on us, and what effects do we have on others? And, of course, this is a good way to think about ourselves each and every day. On Valentine’s Day, I would remind my students of that Valentine’s card I didn’t receive.
A lesson, I hoped, that would last a lot longer than a piece of chocolate or a pencil.