I still remember my first Valentine’s Day party. I was five years old attending a private Kindergarten, not because my parents were wealthy, but because free Kinder programs didn’t yet exist. My parents enrolled me because I was painfully shy and well behind academically.
My clothes were hand-me-downs or homemade while my classmates were well-dressed. Even at that age I knew there was a difference. I stood out because of appearance, sociability and academic struggles (I didn’t know my shapes, letter sounds and the basics of math).
However, when my teachers spoke of there being a party on Valentine’s Day, I was quite excited. With wide-open eyes, I chose the cards that I thought my classmates might like and then dutifully addressed each one. I believed that I would receive an equal number of cards. After all, the teachers said one for each student in the class.
The big day comes. We’ve had sweets made or purchased by parents. We’re given a lunch bag to put on the front of our desks. One by one we get up and walk about the room, dropping cards in each bag. As time passes, my eyes pool with tears: over and over I was being skipped. Not one student put a card in my bag.
When my turn came to distribute cards, I hid them in my lap and pretended as if I had none. I understood that I was beneath consideration; my standing was such that I didn’t warrant a cheap paper card.
Perhaps it was an anomaly, perhaps it was intentional. What was important was that my teachers did nothing to address the discrepancy.
When Valentine’s neared the next school year, my mom insisted that I prepare cards. Once again I chose the ones that I thought were the best, addressed each, then brought them to school. I was now in a Catholic elementary, so I figured things would be different.
My teacher told us to put the bag we’d brought on the front of our desks. I’d decorated mine in bright colors and happy symbols. I was proud of the effort I’d put in and hopeful that it would be filled with cards.
As the rows of students were told to distribute cards, I leaned forward, excited to watch cards drop in my bag. But something went horribly wrong. Just like in Kindergarten, my bag remained empty.
The same thing happened in second grade, third grade, fourth grade and fifth. Every year my mom insisted in buying cards, having me address them, and forcing me to bring them to school. Every year my bag remained empty. Every year my eyes filled with tears.
By this time I hated the day and wished it had never been created. Obviously Valentine’s Day was for special people, not everyone. It was a happy day for kids who had friends, but for loners like myself it was just one more reminder of how isolated we were.
Thankfully when I moved into middle school, the day took on less importance and was essentially ignored for the rest of my school years.
When I became an elementary school teacher I distributed written instructions before the day. All students must give cards to all students. Period. Cards could be homemade or store-bought, but there must be one for each student in the class.
To decrease the chance of embarrassment, students did not roam the class giving out their cards. Instead my instructional assistant collected the cards, sorted them, counted them, and filled in any gaps when the numbers were not equal. She was the one who carried the cards to the desks and placed them in the bags. All students got the same number of cards. No one was made to feel less-than.
Lessons learned when we are small are quite powerful. I learned that it hurt to feel excluded and that when my teachers did nothing, I understood that I was truly alone. Not wanting my students to experience what I had drove me to be a better teacher.
With Valentine’s approaching in this year of COVID-19, each of us needs to ensure that everyone feels cherished even if cards are distributed online or through drop-offs at school. Children who are different-than average must not experience a harsher exclusion or differentiation then they already know.
Find ways to show love that encompass all those in your social circle. Be kind to even the most difficult person in the group. That’s a hard challenge: forcing yourself to put aside angry or hurt feelings in order to be inclusive.
This is my Valentine’s Day lesson: how we treat others at a young age affects how they see themselves later in life. Children who are ignored or isolated grow up feeling ignored and isolated. Addressing cards to children who are not your children’s friends might make the lonely kid’s day. The smile on that child’s face might change her way of looking at herself, leading to a life of successes.
Be thoughtful. Be mindful. Be inclusive.