Love in the Classroom
Love in the Classroom
It was pink, it had glitter on it, and it meant someone loved me.
The little valentine I was holding was from my best friend, Beth, and we were both in the second grade.
Of all my holiday experiences from my elementary school years, I remember Valentine's Day in the second grade most vividly. My teacher that year – and I'm not making this up – was Mrs. Card. And we celebrated Valentine's Day as an entire class.
Beginning a couple weeks before the holiday, each student in my class decorated a brown paper lunch sack, and we attached these "mailboxes" to the chalk rail that ran around the classroom.
Like every other kid's parents, mine bought me a bag of inexpensive valentines – no envelopes, just plain little one-sided cards – and I spent hours on the floor of our den, sorting them for appropriateness.
What's "appropriate" to a second-grader? For me, any valentine addressing love, marriage, or kissing was immediately out. The prettiest cards were reserved for my best girlfriends. A special one was set aside for a seven-year-old boy whose intangibles I found appealing. A couple ugly ones were eliminated because I thought they would reflect badly on me. The rest I distributed among the other kids, each card carefully selected to find the best fit between the preprinted message and my real feelings for that particular person.
As I look back, I am impressed with how serious it all was. Mrs. Card prepared us for thinking deeply about our intentions towards our fellow students. We talked about what giving meant, what tradition was, and how to hold an event as a group project. True to the Sputnik era in which we were raised, we learned that we were stars, but as Mrs. Card said, "… in a universe of other stars that shine just as brightly as yourself." Corny, but I still remember it.
Dr. Carolie Sly, the education program director at the Center for Ecoliteracy, has remarked on what a transitional year second grade is in the emotional and social learning of children – how it is a time when children genuinely begin to understand that actions have consequences, both good and bad. Understanding consequences can ultimately lead to a sense of connection with and responsibility to the natural world – the dawning of ecological intelligence.
For my classmates and me, the day was a helpful exercise in reconciling our personal impulses ("I like her, and I hate him!") with an understanding of how we functioned as a group, contributing to our experience of community.
What supported our learning? Well, in my second grade class it was things like this:
1. No one was left out. Every student gave every other student a valentine. It didn't matter that I did not like the obnoxious Earl one bit. I might not give him one of my best valentines, but I picked one out for him with real thought behind it, signed it, and put it in his paper bag mailbox. And he did the same for me and so did every other student in the class.
2. Mom and Dad knew what was happening in the classroom. When my parents bought me my valentines, it helped me feel they were behind me, that my community was bigger than just my classroom, and that my little ceremonies were connected to others' celebrations around the world.
3. Every family spent about the same amount on cards, which was very, very little. I realize now that these cards cost less than a penny apiece and every child gave and received cards that were similar or identical to mine. There was no status involved, no showing off, no tie-ins to popular movies or video games. And no one was ashamed or worried that they might not be able to afford to keep up.
4. There was no candy. The day wasn't about treats, it was about connecting with one another. There was no big party, and no pile of sweets. In fact, no sweets at all.
5. We intentionally planned a day of community giving and sharing. We still did our regular coursework, but from the little paper mailboxes to the card distribution ceremonies, we spent about two weeks preparing, discussing, and taking concrete steps for this day when we demonstrated that we recognized and valued one another's friendship. And by the time we got to Valentine's Day, we were friends, even if we hadn't been when we started.
As we moved ahead in school, Valentine's Day became increasingly more private, more personal, and much less inclusive. Ultimately, it would become romantic. But truly, my sweetest Valentine's Day memories are from the second grade, in Mrs. Card's classroom.
So what made them the best? The earnestness with which we little ones approached the occasion, the hours of profound, childlike thought behind our tiny gifts, the depth of concentration we put into printing the few characters of our classmates' names and signing our own, the rituals of giving and receiving, the complete dismissal of commercialism and consumerism, and most importantly, the lasting understanding that no little star, ever, is alone in the universe.