Elementary, My Dear Valentine

Elementary, My Dear Valentine
With the exception of Christmas, no other holiday during my elementary school years was met with the same anticipation as Valentine’s Day.

About a week before the big day, the teacher distributed large white paper bags to the class. Then we were instructed to decorate them as only elementary students can.

Some students would take the easy way out, and draw only a red heart on the white background with a red Crayola crayon. The addition of one’s initials was the only other requirement from the teacher.

Other students elaborately cut out a myriad of hearts made of red construction paper. Some trimmed them in silver glitter or white paint, and then highlighted them with lettering. In rare cases, students chained their hearts together with tape to flow downward in a cascading ribbon of red about the size of the Heisman Trophy.

No two bags looked alike. Some were barely recognizable as Valentines bags but others looked to me as if professional artists were behind the designing.

You had a good idea who was going to get the most Valentines in his or her bag long before the actual holiday. But when you saw the finished product with the decorations on each bag, there left little doubt as to who was the best artist, the most popular, and of course whose bag would need reinforced to handle the weight of the load that it was about to hold.

Two classmates’ Valentine bags still stick with me today. They belonged to Mae Jean Plummer and Mary Topper. They were the two most popular girls in our class. They were also very smart, talented in art and possessed the patience for decorating that I never had. And their parents had to rent a U-Haul to transport their collection of Valentines and candy home after the annual party.

In the days leading up to the actual festivities, you could watch the contents of those two bags grow by the minute. The decorations on the outside of the bag made of red hearts, trim and lettering almost eclipsed the entire front. But it was what was happening inside the sack that was most significant.

When the boys felt that no one was watching, they would sneak cards or heart candies into the girls’ bags. As I am sure you remember, Valentine cards could be purchased in a sundry of sizes, but it seemed as though all the larger ones ended up in one or both of those girls’ possession.

The teacher had to reinforce those owned by Mary and Mae Jean with extra tape and sometimes with extra glue just to hold them together long enough until they could be lugged home.

Do you remember those little candy treats? The chosen script on those tasteless, tooth-breaking hearts, and how you felt about another classmate were directly related. I usually got the “You’re Nice” heart - Or, the almost insulting “Happy Valentines’ Day” heart.

If you were a tad more popular, a “You Are Mine,” or “Be Mine” heart, would find its way into your stash. Share your personal message with a classmate and the word spread throughout the class like today’s predictions of global warming. And the news was as important to us as any invasion in world history.

I never had to worry about that though. My bag was average in size and contents and had enough sweets to satisfy my needs. I had no secret admirers bearing such gifts containing the sought-after words. (And most of my cards were on the smaller size.) I never worried either that those unprotected treats were touched by more dirty hands than a handle on a public restroom commode. What you didn’t know didn’t hurt you, I guess.

Even in this pre-puberty stage, the boys were never at a loss for some bragging. They would proudly proclaim their heart messages aloud. A feminine response ranging from subtle blushing to torrential tears had little effect on a bragger once he got rolling. Hence, I recall a few lovers' quarrels breaking out over Valentine's Day too.

Proclamations of large cards received and candy gifts were rarely heard coming from the girls. Even in my youth, the ladies always gave me the impression of being more mature.

Our class’s popular gals surely had the right to brag though, because Mae Jean and Mary’s loot was the envy of all the students in our school.

Their bags contained the hearts that were so rare, so indescribably coveted, that the candy makers only placed ONE, unique slogan in each box. It read, “I Love You.” That’s not all – they received huge, chocolate hearts, red lollipops, and packs of bubble gum too. These expensive treats had to set their admirers back a pretty penny in the day.

And, it wasn’t only the candy treats that were gigantic - some of the cards given to those two were too large for their bags. The teacher would have to place them outside the bag, or tape them on the shelf next to the shrine that was forming.

Funny, but we were used to this custom and no one seemed surprised or bothered by it at all. Until…

Word spread that Patty Jastrzebski’s bag in the classroom down the hall had set new standards and records for Valentine’s Day in all the elementary schools worldwide.

Patty was the other class’s version of Mary and Mae Jean. At least that’s what we thought, until we saw her bag!!!

Or, should I say, BAGS? Patty possessed so many cards and treats that the teacher placed her multiple containers on a separate chair in the corner of the room! With her name written above the chair, there were wrapped presents in her pile, huge cards the size of posters, and more candy than the Easter Bunny would have given a family of fifteen. I thought, “This was truly the world’s most-loved girl.”

The years have passed. Both Mary and Mae Jean are retired teachers today. And I wonder if they had permitted Valentine’s Day parties for their classes. I also wonder if they set any limits on the size of any shrines that were made in honor of the popular gals.

Patty’s sweetheart reputation remained with her and it seemed almost anti-climactic to me, when she was elected as our class’s prom queen in senior high school. .

Many times I have been asked how is it that I have such vivid memories of those days long gone by.

My reply, “It’s elementary, my Dear Valentive.”

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927

My Roots - The Potchaks - circa 1927
From Left: Son, Steve - Dad, Frank - Mom, Anastasia (Makar) - Sons; John, Mike, Frank, Chuck (Author's Dad) - Twins, Pete & Mary - Daughter, Catherine. Photo taken in Wilmore, PA