I’m old enough that when I was in elementary school, we had a full blown Valentine’s Day party every year on the nearest school day to February 14. We decorated a shoe box or something to put little paper Valentines with cartoon characters on them inside…everyone had to give a Valentine to every other kid in the class. Sometimes there were cookies or candy or something. We usually got to watch a movie. And it was a time to get an hour to an hour and a half ‘off’ while school was going on. Valentine’s Day was never my favorite day, but I liked it alright, because movie and cookies at school that day. You know. Then came middle school…
I’ve written about my complicated life in middle school before. It was lonely and sad for the most part, moving to a big, new place from my small, comfortable one in elementary school. My greatest regret in life happened in middle school, and it involved my first experience with navigating romance. And it was difficult to make new friends (it’s always been difficult for me to make new friends). But I also made my three oldest friends in middle school, so I DID make some friends, and middle school wasn’t totally bad. But Valentine’s Day was one of those things that became exponentially weirder and exclusionary for me then.
See, in middle school, there was no more inclusive Valentine’s Day party where we got a break from school and got to watch an animated movie (I still love animated movies) and everyone gave a little paper cartoon Valentine to everyone else. In middle school, they sold single roses. So kids could buy a single rose (heavy romantic implication) to select other kids they ‘liked.’ SOME kids (girls) bought them for friends. But not many. It was mostly boys (who could afford it) buying roses for (popular, conventionally attractive) girls they ‘liked.’
Unsurprisingly, I didn’t get any. I was a new, quiet, smart dork. I was not popular, even making friends. I was definitely not (and never have been) popular with boys. Even the two boys in middle school who ‘liked’ me…and I think they both liked me in a genuine way…didn’t ‘like’ me around Valentine’s Day, and even if they did, one of them for sure wouldn’t really be able to buy me one of those roses. Not enough expendable income for that when your parents aren’t doing well financially, and there’s lunch and brand name gym shoes and Guess jeans and IOU sweatshirts (anybody remember those? They were oddly popular in my middle school in the early 1990s) to buy.
A rose to express fleeting puppy love likely wasn’t high on the priority list if your family ran on a budget.
I wasn’t super into romance in middle school (or even in high school or college, to be real about things). But watching other kids get roses delivered during class still made it clear that I was left out. I didn’t fit in. I was different. And not in a good way.
By the time I got to high school, Valentine’s Day had dropped off my map entirely. I didn’t have time for boys and romance, for the most part. I was in Advanced Placement, college prep hell. I honestly didn’t even think about Valentine’s Day. I was busy being stressed out about doing well in those classes and getting college credit and getting a scholarship because my parents 1. made me believe that my life would be utter shit if I didn’t go to college 2. made it clear that if I did not earn an academic scholarship to college, I couldn’t go. I took my academic life in high school extremely seriously. Looking back, knowing what I know now, DEFINITELY too seriously. Not that I would have relaxed in order to participate more enthusiastically and fully in high school social life or burgeoning romantic interludes. I just would have been generally a little less anxious. And in high school, I DID go out with my first real boyfriend. And we had a date on Valentine’s Day. We went to a movie. I don’t remember the movie. We weren’t making out in the movie or anything. We only actually kissed once (it was my first kiss and it was Love Story Spectacular…really…it probably contributed to raising my expectations for future boyfriends and romance pretty high…arguably irrationally high). But that date was my first REAL date and the first time I felt like someone chose to spend time with me and I liked him and it was Valentine’s Day and he bought me a goofy heart shaped box of chocolates and I spent the movie watching HIM. Smiling at him. This person who chose to spend time with me on purpose when he could have been doing something else. I liked Valentine’s Day when I was 15. But it wasn’t about Valentine’s Day. It was about the person I spent it with and how valued he made me feel.
But we broke up…obviously. And Valentine’s Day disappeared for me again until I met J.
And on my first Valentine’s Day with J, he did NOT give me roses. (Or even chocolate. And we buy Valentine’s Day candy now when it’s on sale, because YAY! Chocolates! But not as a gift to each other). J gave me a necklace. It wasn’t the grand gesture or the expense of that gift that overwhelmed me then. It was just like going on my first real date with my first real boyfriend, only amplified and the stakes were WAY higher. J made me feel valued and chosen and LOVED. And now Valentine’s Day is special to me. Because of J. And his consistency in making me feel valued and chosen and loved. And now I write sappy love stories, and a couple of them actually mention Valentine’s Day…Building: A Love Story (not to spoil the plot, but the Valentine’s Day scene is about NOT getting roses…I wonder where that came from…)
And Opening Doors (again…not to spoil the plot, but the Valentine’s Day scene is about a woman getting a necklace from a man who is consistent about making her feel valued and chosen and loved. Again…I wonder where that came from…)
I don’t write about my life with J directly in my fiction. But that guy really can inspire a lot of love stories. Most of them are on sale now or are going on sale soon if you’re interested in reading about love around this Valentine’s Day.