An excerpt from a letter sent home from school with my four-year-old the other day:
“Dear Parent …This month, the Otters class will be talking about being kind, sharing, doing good for others, and being a good friend. If your child would like to participate in an optional Valentine exchange, we will help your child distribute these signs of friendship.”
Loath as I am to criticize the angels willing to civilize my preschooler while I roam around the Galleria or play Tetris in my underwear, they’re doing justice to neither the bracing security of friendship nor the euphoric calamity of romantic love by suggesting that Valentines are an expression of the former. True Valentines are dangerous shots in the dark, vibrating with the risk required to send them.
Here’s what the letter should have said:
“Dear Parent… This month, the Otters class will be talking about the violent pagan and Christian origins of Valentine’s Day, examining how ritual sacrifice and martyrdom are still featured in modern Valentine’s Day customs. If your child would like to participate in a voluntary reenactment of the scene in Say Anything where John Cusack stands outside Ione Skye’s window with a boom box while she silently rejects him, we will help your child rehearse and perform both parts.”
I picture tiny boys in trench coats standing in the snow outside the classroom window next to a Big Wheel or a Lightning McQueen car, holding up an iPod docking station blaring “In Your Eyes.” Inside, the girls take turns lying on cots, crying prettily because Daddy doesn’t approve. Then the boys come in and cry on the cots and the girls go outside in the trench coats with the docking stations –it’s 2012 after all.
True Valentines are dangerous shots in the dark, vibrating with the risk required to send them.
If we’re really going to commit to the desperate love theme (of which this particular mother wholly approves), then snacks throughout February should be tiny, watery salads; whole pints of Ben and Jerry’s; Diet Coke and rice cakes; giant bags of Cheetos; 2-liters of Mountain Dew chugged straight from the bottle. Art projects: mix tapes and Sharpie tattoos. P.E: listless wandering. Music: humming U2’s “Love is Blindness” on their backs with the lights out.
Finally, the Valentine exchange: line them up, have them hand each other carefully-made cards covered in Fancy Nancy or Star Wars stickers, delicately scented with baby shampoo, Play-doh, mud, grilled cheese, canned frosting.* In response, some will say thank you, some say no thank you, some say nothing, some say too much, some give a hug, some give a mean punch. Some give a pen.
Those teachers might as well stick with teaching everyone how to be a good friend. Lord knows we hard-core Romantics need LOTS of those.
To send a real Valentine, you need both a risk and the bold willingness to take it. Children cannot yet perceive the risk and adults perceive too much risk to maintain the bold willingness.None of us understand the value of love until life teaches us what it costs to win it and what it costs to lose it.
When we say “be my Valentine,” that means please honor the original sacrifice, be willing as Saint Valentine was to risk everything for love.
Valentine’s Day is not merely a celebration of love; it is a celebration of the chances we humans will take to capture and keep it. The first Saint Valentine was a priest who defied King Claudius by continuing to marry couples even after the king had banned the practice (he wanted only single men for his army; married men kept defecting to be with their sweethearts). For this, Saint Valentine was sentenced to death.
One version of the story describes Saint Valentine being visited in his cell by the couples he married, who passed him notes and flowers to express their gratitude. Another version suggests he fell in love with the jailor’s daughter and gave her a note: “from your Valentine.” Either way, he died for love. When we give someone a Valentine, we’re supposed to mean it. When we say “be my Valentine,” that means please honor the original sacrifice, be willing as Saint Valentine was to risk everything for love. Preschoolers won’t do that –self-preservation is still too strong in them.
But someday they will. Someday their hearts and minds and bodies will be electrified with the hope and longing and fear and desperation of a love that’s finally worth the risk of embarrassment or judgement or loss. When it no longer feels optional, then they will be ready to give a real Valentine and be one.
Whatever they get in return for the hearts they offer–a note of gratitude, a boy in the yard, silent rejection– they will understand that it doesn’t matter. The life of a Valentine–whether long or brief, free or imprisoned –is always the same: risk more, risk again –defy the king, take shots in the dark, welcome the euphoric calamity, die again and again for love.