“Did you put your cards in your backpack?”
“Okay, then you’re ready to go! Have fun!!!”
Today is the last school day before St-Valentine’s day. Our fifth Valentine in the USA. By now we know this is a BIG deal in American elementary schools.
The first year I was rather clueless.
Luckily there had been Ruth, a kind American mom I’d met during a writer’s workshop. Ruth had lived in Europe for a while, where she had discovered that Europeans consider St-Valentine’s day to be a holiday celebrated by lovers – and only by them.
That’s the way we Europeans sometimes tend to be. When we have something others haven’t, we do on occasions tend to rub it in. No ‘Let’s-make-this-a-party-for-all!’-empathy to be discovered where I come from. Ours is much more a kind of a ‘You-don’t-have-a-lover?-Well-too-bad-for-you!’-attitude.
Having heard about many of my gaffes against American customs, Ruth had taken the time to send me an email, detailing St-Valentine’s celebrations in my adoptive country.
“Valentine has become a children’s holiday in the USA,” she explained. “And so as not to exclude anyone from the festivities, children are asked to write Valentine cards for all their classmates. Those cards will be exchanged during a Valentine celebration. And,” she had added, “since it’s an American children’s celebration, expect your children to come home on a sugar high, their backpacks loaded with enough candy to carry them through the year.”
Sweet Ruth. I was so grateful for her advise. At least this would be one event we’d celebrate the right way. Or so I thought.
I immediately drove to the pharmacy, annex mini-supermarket with a huge holiday cards collection, where I sent off my 11-year-old daughter in search of Valentine cards while I looked for some household essentials.
“Got them!” Eloise stated some fifteen minutes later. “Look at this one,” She flipped open a card, sending electronic giggling and ‘happy valentine’-screams through the ‘personal care’-isle.
“Don’t you love it?” she asked when the green and pink alien-looking creatures had stopped screaming. I could imagine pre-teens having fun with that card, but the $5.99 price tag somewhat put me off, however. Okay, there were only 14 children in her class, but still … Valentine promised to be an expensive celebration at this rate.
I dropped a tube of shower gel in my basket and walked with Eloise to the cards rack, helping her to locate some cheaper cards. At last we settled on two packages containing ten nondescript ‘notecards’ with envelopes. They didn’t boast any corky Valentine texts or red hearts, but at $6.99 per package they looked perfect to me.
Once home, my daughter immediately set to work, thinking hard to come up with a kind and personalized message for each of her class mates.
On D-day, Eloise left for school all excited about what her class mates would think about her cards and wondering what she would get in return.
That afternoon, when she came home after school, she was running, clearly on a sugar high, as predicted by Ruth.
“Valentine is the best!” she declared.
Really? Had this event at last opened the doors to some much-needed peer kindness for my daughter? Eloise had been struggling since September to make friends. Maybe her kind cards had opened their eyes at last and had made them discover that she was in fact a very sweet girl?
“So your friends were happy with your cards?” I inquired.
“Oh no!” Eloise replied, “I mean, I don’t know. They didn’t even look at them. I guess they’ll read them tonight … maybe…,” she seemed to ponder that, then added, “In fact I don’t think they will read them at all. You know mama, my cards kind of sucked.”
They did? Did those other kids buy those expensive cards then? And why was Eloise so happy if her cards ‘sucked’?
“Oh, so did you get nice cards from your friends?” I asked.
“Yessss!!” my daughter exclaimed, opening her back pack and retrieving a white paper bag on which she had drawn hearts and glued small foam shapes. Not bothering about her decorations, she tore it apart and shook out its contents.
“Look!” she said.
Out fell tiny cards, not larger than a clothes’ price tag, each showing a design of football or basketball players, glittery hearts or pop artists. Being so little, there was absolutely no room for some nice personalized message on them. Barely legible names had been scribbled on the lines labeled ‘to’ and ‘from’. ‘Nice’ was definitely not the word that came to my mind upon seeing those sorry excuses for cards. My card expectations in ‘Hallmark-country’ had clearly been too high.
What made the cards ‘nice’ in my daughter’s view however, were of course not the football players or pop artists. It was what was taped to the cards. For each card came with some pink or red candy.
Eloise greedily tore off all the candy, not even pausing to decipher the name of the child who had offered it to her.
“Too bad there are not more children in my class,” she concluded, looking at the small red-and-pink pile, while she stuffed a Twizzler in her mouth.
I had to agreed with her. Her class mates would probably think her cards ‘sucked’ …
A few years later, in a knee-jerk-reflex to be creative, I decided my son’s first grade Valentine cards would be home-made. The project turned out to be largely mine; given my son’s lack of motivation for crafting. Instead of candy, I opted for a healthy – and pedagogically correct – alternative, taping a pencil to each card. Thibaut couldn’t care less about the whole thing and was – just like his sister had been – only interested in the candy that came with his classmates’ cards.
Given my son’s lack of involvement the year before and my own limited enthusiasm for crafting, second grade Valentine saw me buying a cheap box of tiny Star Wars cards. Thibaut hurried to write his name on all cards, then disappeared as I taped pencils to them, which made the flimsy cards look ridiculously small.
Then came this year …
At the supermarket last week, I told Thibaut to check if he could find some nice Valentine cards. He came back with a ‘32-pack for $1.99’ of tiny ‘Skylanders’ cards.
“I didn’t know you were into ‘Skylanders’?” I asked.
“I’m not, but all the other cards are really too childish.”
“Do you want to go to another store to find something cooler?”
“No mama, I don’t care. Nobody looks at the cards anyway. Now, we need to find good candy. Not too large so we can easily tape it on the cards, but not too small, because then I’ll be the uncool kid who hands out tiny pieces of candy.”
“What about pencils?” I tried.
My son stared at me. “Not again, Mama! Nobody likes pencils. And besides, the class party planners usually give us some.”
Oh … okay.
Tonight, Thibaut’s friends might frown at the ‘Skylanders’ design for just a second. They will not notice his scribbling, hardly legible because of my son’s haste to get the card-writing out of the way. But they will probably be happy with the M&M-like, red-pink-and-white sugarcoated chocolates taped to the card.
“This is the best treat, mama!” Thibaut had declared upon purchase. “Chocolate and Belgians go together and everybody knows it!”
After giving in to the American Valentine routine, I wonder though how Belgian we can still claim to be?
I herewith declare our American Valentine integration to be complete!
Hélène Toye is the author of ‘Go West, A Belgian Attempts American Motherhood’, available on : http://amzn.com/1493592548