I was in the fourth grade when a boy handed me pink, plastic-wrapped goodies and asked me to be his valentine. It was in the coatroom, because at Jewish day school, Valentine’s Day was not allowed. My father always said it was a “pagan holiday,” so I didn’t think much about handing the candies back, but only after looking at their ingredients. “Here,” I said. “These aren’t kosher, anyway.”
A decade and a half later, I was teaching language arts at a middle school in Baltimore. My boyfriend at the time found the holiday commercial and arbitrary, so we had never celebrated. I wouldn’t have done anything at all, but I learned my lesson on Halloween. After school, the kids gathered in the cafeteria for an event organized by the math teachers. I watched them gape at a dry ice display and claw through slime to solve equations. Between the obstacles they faced at home and at school, my students struggled more often than not. But in the cafeteria that day, there was unimpeded joy. I learned not to let the next chance to celebrate pass me by.
On Valentine’s Day, students rushed through the school exchanging lollipops and pressing stickers to their friends’ cheeks. The halls that often contained shouting matches were breezy with happiness. Staff mailboxes were stuffed with notes and treats. I thought, this is what my childhood school was trying so hard to prevent? Who in their right mind would forbid this? In my classroom, I filled the groups of desks with art supplies and gave the kids time to make cards. As is often the case, the brilliance of the day was a student’s idea.
“Check this out,” Michael said. He started bragging to the others at his table about his cards, how they were guaranteed to impress the girls. When he saw their interest, he offered to sell his cards to his friends, and he brought one over to my desk. Michael was a student still working on navigating his intelligence and popularity, a class clown whose antics often drove me to the edge of madness. But on a good day, he could shepherd his classmates to productivity and inspiration.
On this day, he had written poetry. We were studying A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and the words in his card proved Michael had been paying close attention, and not just on his good days. Michael, that poem is lovely, is what I wanted to say. Instead, I gave him a look and a nod, “Very cool.”
I was lucky enough to be in the hallway that afternoon when one of his cards found its recipient and I heard her “Oh my God.”
That summer, I went through a devastating breakup. In the outside world, Valentine’s Day’s fixation on romantic love might have been isolating. At an elementary-middle school, I thought I’d be spared the worst of it. “Ms. Kassutto, who’s your valentine?” the students asked all day long. Kids can smell these things. I did my best to duck the question and make a joke, keeping the bright memory of the year before in my head.
When the time came to teach my seventh graders, I took my cue from Michael. I set out art supplies, played some music, and told the kids to make cards for anyone they loved, as many as they wanted. “Oh, and I’ll give you an extra credit point for every literary device you use.”
Like magic, seventh grade became a poetry factory. I walked between the tables and heard kids bickering over metaphors and similes. I watched as students who normally begrudged the smallest assignment filled card after card with writing. At the end of the period, one of them handed me a piece of blue construction paper with an apple drawn on it. “Your a great teacher,” it read. A few years ago I would have allowed the grammar to eclipse the message, but now I knew better. The mistake could be corrected tomorrow.
My breakup has long ended, and I have a new boyfriend now. He buys me flowers and pours me glasses of wine and holds my hand while we watch Survivor. We’ll be home on Valentine’s Day like we are every night, and it will be a sweet moment during a bleak year. Even if we were in a candlelit restaurant, though, I’d be thinking of my stuffy classroom. The candy and jokes exchanged. The glue sticks stubbornly left uncapped. The mess of construction paper and misspelled sentiments and all the love they contained.
Maya Kassutto grew up in Elkins Park and is a 2018 graduate of University of Pennsylvania.