The Day

Valentine’s Day, St. Valentine’s Day, to be exact, is a holiday fraught with ambiguity. No sooner have the stores removed the trees, ornaments, and Santa’s throne, the hearts appear. Pink-hearted cards, heart-shaped boxes of chocolate, chalky heart candy printed with amorous phrases, neckties, scarves, hats, and socks, speckled with hearts.

I enjoy this warm-hearted holiday that breaks the February ice. It’s a welcome bit of whimsy after all the Christmas hoopla that besieged us for months. I enjoy Christmas as well, but its commercialized excess gets to be a bit much. In this last week of January, we still spot several houses with their lights not only up, but on. Puleeeeze.

I think I speak for many whose memories of this day harken back to grade school and the awkward exchange of Valentines. In early grades this was not a problem. Quaint cards we made in class were evenly distributed among the student population.

Until middle school. We didn’t call it middle school. Nor did we have Junior High. We simply had Kindergarten through 8th Grade; collectively called Grade School.

The Cards

Grade school included those troubling 5th, 6th, 7th grades. Valentines during those years became serious business because it told the world where you were in the pecking order of popularity. At some point the teachers must have caught on that some kids were being left out in the cold, so they encouraged everyone to bring enough cards to share with all. That meant finding the cheapest possible box of Valentines.

Under this plan, no child was left behind. Don’t construe that this fostered good will. While everyone was guaranteed (theoretically) a Valentine to take home, some kids still bought “special cards” for their “special” Valentines, and some kids probably still could not afford the humble die- cut hearts illustrated with a cute critter chirping the most generic of sentiments: “Be My Valentine“.

The kids that brought the “special” cards for their “special” Valentine went all out. Embossed, Shiny foil type, lacy borders, heavy stock, deckled edges, an actual poem inside (not some chipmunk or troll mumbling “Be Mine“), all  inside a beautiful matching envelope. The frilly thing must have cost a buck, which was an entire Saturday of cutting grass for me.

The Kids

Prior to the middle grades I could not have cared less for a special card. The die-cut hearts were just fine when I was seven. They implied no social standing, no gauge of popularity or desirability, they were just a thing we did, much like saying the pledge of allegiance or ducking for cover while practicing for the impending Soviet invasion.

By 6th grade it was an all out indicator of one’s prospects for a life of happiness and eventual progeny. 6th grade was the beginning of trouble. It was an overall good year for me, because Sr. Paulette, my favorite teacher, allowed me considerable drawing time at the blackboard. She was one of those modern, young, encouraging teachers.

She did have a slight mis-step in her zeal to encourage. She allowed Larry (not his real name) to sing the schmaltz ballad Cherish by The Association, a cappella, in front of the whole class. Larry had a fine voice, but this was still a bad idea in front of a class of boys who didn’t appreciate fine voices unless they were on Ed Sullivan. Larry wasn’t on Ed Sullivan, he was on Newport and Delor in South St. Louis in front of 11 year old boys who did not varnish their opinions. This is no fault of Sr. Paulette, who was a great and encouraging teacher. She simply misjudged her class of miscreants.

On the other hand, Larry probably received “special” Valentines because the girls admired his fine voice and thought he was a great artist who drew a spot on Snoopy atop his dog house. I think I drew better than Larry, but I drew deranged characters in the style of Mad Magazine and girls didn’t think they were cute. I wasn’t going for cute, I was going for pathos. The 6th grade girls didn’t know what pathos was, so I was not given a “special” Valentine. I got the cheap cut out cardboard heart mumbling Be Mine. Talk about pathos.

The Gift 

If I recall, I never received a special card that cost a dollar, but only the obligatory box card fulfilling the laws of mercy required by Sr. Paulette. While her encouragement of Larry’s solo on Cherish was a bit of a flop, her celebration of my drawing at the blackboard drew dividends. Laying off the creepier styles of Mad Magazine characters, I softened my blackboard art to copying the more acceptable personalities of the daily funnies: Beetle Bailey, B.C. , Andy Capp, but no Snoopy, he belonged to Charles Schulz and Larry.

While my persistence in drawing has, by God’s grace, led to a viable career in illustration, my special Valentine showed up not as a fancy card given by a soon to be forgotten classmate, but a real life, long-term soulmate.

Judy, you indeed are my Valentine and “Cherish is the word that I use to descri-i-i-be“, okay, I’ll leave that to Larry (not his real name). I love you dearly and thank you for bringing so much joy, whimsy, fun, and beauty to my life.

Valentine Illustration ©2013 Ed Koehler