Door County Writes: ‘Valentine’s Anxiety’

by Michael Brecke

For some reason, my memory doesn’t remember the fourth-grade Valentine’s Day party, but the fifth grade, that’s different. That is when my anxiety about which valentine to give to which person hit. More specifically, which valentine to give to which girl. I had a preadolescent crush on one of the girls in my class, or perhaps more than one. 

I remember staring more than a little intently at the boxes of valentines on the shelves of the local variety store. There was not a great selection. As I stared, I wondered whether I should add little pieces of candy to some of the valentines and worried about which one to get for my teacher. 

These were weighty decisions for a nine-year-old. My whole future might rest on which valentine I gave the girl in my class or what gift I would give my teacher. Small-town Valentine’s Day politics played a major role in the lives of those who chose to play, sometimes for years to come.

Finally, with a few crumpled dollar bills in my hand and some change rescued from my change bank that I was supposed to save, I chose a box of valentines and a small package of wrapped chocolate hearts. My teacher would come later in my selection process.

I walked at a brisk pace up the street the four blocks to my home. When I got home, I broke the plastic seal on the valentines and poured the cards and envelopes on the floor. Then I began the process of sorting – looking, I suppose, for the serious ones that would pledge my heartfelt love for Lois, or Margaret, or Candace.

“You’re Sum Valentine” with a series of added numbers. “Let’s Strike Up a Match, Valentine” written over a matchbook, with one ready to strike – which seemed not to be a very safe message for my fifth-grade classmates. I kept looking for just the right message. One shouted, “I’ve learned to love you.” A little too bold, I thought. Using the “L word” was risky at age nine.

Then I saw it: three cats on a card and words that could be interpreted many different ways: “You’re nicer than nice; you’re sweeter than sweet; without you, Valentine’s Day would be incomplete.” It appealed to my need for subtlety while extending the affection I thought was necessary for the one girl who was going to receive this message. 

Now I had to decide whether I was going to sign it or send it anonymously. Signing was another risky proposition. Finally, I decided on just my first name. 

Now that I had decided on the one, I had to decide what to give to the rest of my class. Our teacher had given us a mimeographed list of names so we wouldn’t leave anyone out. I needed 22 valentines – 21 now that I had eliminated the one I thought was an expression of my love. 

And I still had to choose one for my teacher. There was also the matter of the candy hearts and whether or not to put them in some of the envelopes. As I looked at the pile, I saw one that made me giggle: “I’m gonna Pop a Corny question: Will you be my valentine?” I decided I’d send that to my special girl with no signature.

Working through my list and matching cards to names, I found one that would work for my teacher: a blond boy and a brunette girl looking out, and behind them on the chalkboard, “Teacher, please be my valentine.” It would save me money because I wouldn’t have to buy a big card. I could put some chocolate hearts in the envelope, and it would be just right.

Valentine’s Day came, and there was a variety of cupcakes and cookies and the valentine exchange, all seeming a bit anticlimactic after the anxiety of choosing the right cards for the right people. 

I don’t remember whether the girl I gave the cards to acknowledged me or not, but I do remember one of the girls giving me a valentine that contained the “L word,” and when I opened it and looked up, she gave me a very shy smile. I smiled back.

For many years, Michael Brecke – former pastor at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church and a founding board member of Write On, Door County – has written a column for Write On’s website to encourage people to write or share their own stories.

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