I was the only stayâ€“atâ€“home mom within an eight-mile radius. My house sported cases of Skippy peanut butter, a whole fridge of milk, a cookie jar filled with crumbs no matter how often I baked, homemade playâ€“dough in six different colors and flavors, and a ripe infestation of little boys.
They all dressed alike, these boys. Sweaty baseball caps covering a head of hair rarely touched by comb or shampoo. Striped shirts stained with purple jelly and tuna fish. Jeans worn for so many days that they could stand alone. Mismatched soccer socks and tennis shoes held together with spit and a prayer. Two of them, David and Kevin, belonged to me. But the rest somehow tunneled in after dark looking for food, help with homework, a mean game of Uno, or someone to be grossed out by their Garbage Pail Kids Cards.
Since I was the only stayâ€“atâ€“home mom, I was, by default, also room mother. This year I volunteered for Kevinâ€™s fourth grade class. His teacher, Mr. Sullivan, earned high boy-approval points after he got annoyed with all the little girls bringing Cabbage Patch dolls to class. He tried warning the girls, calling their parents, and assigning detention. Nothing worked. Every girl in class lugged their dolls along. Finally, he arrested the dolls, convicted them, and then hanged them from the ceiling with a noose around their soft little dolly necks. The dead dolls and their nooses, clearly visible though the classroom windows, caused a minor school controversy. Parents protested. The principal ignored it. The boys cheered. The girls learned to leave their dolls a home where they belonged.
My infestation of boys assured me that Mr. Sullivan would never approve a Valentineâ€™s Day party, even though Valentineâ€™s Day fell on a Friday that year. Mr. Sullivan was way cool. Valentineâ€™s were girly and pink and had cooties and no way Mr. Sullivan would want a part of all that.
But there were rules: 1. Everyone in class had to bring Valentines. 2. Homemade ones were nicer that store bought ones. 3. Everyone got a Valentine. No exceptions. No complaining.
I typed up a list of all the students in the class and made sure everyone got the list. A few days before the party, Mr. Sullivan taught an art class that featured paper folding and cutting to make hearts (and the mathematics of symmetry happened for free). I helped with the glue and the glitter and the math. Students also decorated shoe boxes with slits cut into the top to receive their cards. At the end of the lesson, the kids were invited to take home extra supplies if they wanted to make their own Valentines. A very neat way, I thought, to let students who couldnâ€™t afford the material accept help without embarrassment.
My infestation of boys complained about Valentineâ€™s Day to me every chance they got.
â€œDo we have to give Brandy and Tiffany a Valentine?â€
â€œBut theyâ€™re really gross.â€
â€œDo you have to make all the cookies heart shaped?â€
â€œWill the punch be pink?â€
â€œIt will be now.â€
â€œAh, man. Canâ€™t we have Dirt with Worms like we did for Halloween?â€
â€œCan we play Headsâ€“ up Sevenâ€“up?
The Valentineâ€™s party went off without a hitch. The boys gobbled up the heart cookies even with the pink icing and pinker sprinkles. They laughed over the sayings on the Sweetheart candies. They didnâ€™t complain too much when a girl won Heads-up Sevenâ€“ up.
Finally, they opened the boxes with all the Valentines. Everyone had a huge pile, even Mr. Sullivan. Girls giggled and carefully tore the ends of the envelopes noting who signed each one. Boys ripped them apart looking for more candy. In the midst of this chaos, Freddie Farkis stood up and shouted, â€œNo fair. No one gave, Mrs. Donley a Valentine.â€
The noise level dropped to near silence. I heard the clock ticking, a piece of paper rustling and the sharp inhale from Mr. Sullivan.
Every child in that room stared at the teacher. His eyes were wide with panic. His mouth opened and closed in rapid succession as if he were a fish gasping for water. A sudden flush spread up the side of his neck and colored the tips of his ears hot pink.
Either Brandy or Tiffany sobbed, â€œWe broke the rule. We broke the rules.â€
â€œMoms donâ€™t need Valentines,â€ I said.
â€œYes, they do. Everyone needs a Valentine.â€ Freddie turned to Mr. Sullivan. â€œYou said everyone needs a Valentine.â€
â€œDonâ€™t worry, Freddie. Mr. Donley will get me a Valentine.â€ I glance around the room. The girls seemed happy with that solution and smiled at me. Mr. Sullivan cleared his throat a few times and nodded his head as if he, himself, had arranged for Mr. Donley to give me a Valentine. The infestation of boys was not happy. They all folded their arms across their chests. They ignored their candy and cookies.
Freddieâ€™s eyes narrowed, and I knew he would try to argue some more when the bell rang signaling the end of school. Mr. Sullivan snapped out of his panic and clapped his hand. â€œLetâ€™s get this room cleaned up. Itâ€™s time to go home.â€
Students packed their backpack with their holiday loot and dribbled out of the room in groups of two or three.
I stayed after to help.
â€œThat was embarrassing,â€ Mr. Sullivan said when the last child left the room. He picked up chairs and placed them on the desks so the janitors could clean the room. â€œI am so sorry.â€
â€œI typed up the list. It never occurred to me to put my name on it.â€ I dumped cookie crumbs into the trash can and emptied cups of punch into the sink.
â€œIâ€™m going to have to figure out something for Monday.â€ He turned off the lights and picked up his briefcase and keys.
â€œDonâ€™t worry about it. Theyâ€™ll have forgotten all about it by the time they get to the crosswalk.â€ I stashed my supplies in my box, picked up my purse and headed to the kindergarten room to collect my daughter.
My daughter, Stephanie, her buddies Christian and Jan, Christianâ€™s mom who worked swing shift at the phone company, were waiting for me by the kindergarten door. â€œThose hoodlum boys didnâ€™t wait for us,â€ Jan said as we started walking home. â€œThey ran out of here like rats off a sinking ship. Whatâ€™s up?â€
â€œSugar high,â€ I suggested as I looked around for my own sons. â€œYour brothers didnâ€™t wait?â€ I asked Stephanie.
â€œThey went to Freddieâ€™s,â€ she said. â€œI told them they better wait. Are they going to get in trouble?â€
Before I could answer both David and Kevin ran up. â€œCan we go to Freddieâ€™s?â€ They asked in unison.
â€œWill his mom or dad be home?â€ I asked.
They looked at each other, shrugged, kicked the ground and with great care did not look at me.
â€œNo parents. No way.â€
â€œPlease. Pretty, please. With sugar on top.â€
â€œSorry, guys. When we get home, you can call Freddie and find out when his folks will be home. You can go over then.â€
â€œHis sisterâ€™s there. She goes to junior high.â€
â€œNot happening,â€ I said.
They grumbled as we walked down C Street. They argued as we turned on Sycamore Ave. They tried bribery all the way down Alfredo Street and into our driveway.
Where we were greeted by the entire infestation of boys. They were hanging in the tree. Lounging on the front poach. Rolling in the grass.
Freddie stood in the middle of the herd, a grubby brown paper bag in one hand and the handle bars of his bike in the other.
â€œHere,â€ he said thrusting the paper bag into my hands.
â€œWhat is it?â€ I asked.
â€œWe traded. We traded our Valentines with my sister.â€ Freddie didnâ€™t look at me as I opened the bag. Inside I found one of those small bottles halfâ€“filled with turquoise blowing bubble solution. The bottle was strung on a long black string making a necklace.
â€œItâ€™s your Valentine,â€ he said as he got on his bike. â€œEveryone gets a Valentine.â€
He rode off before I could get the necklace around my neck. But the other boys watched as I unscrewed the slightly tarnished cap and blew bubbles all over my front yard.
â€œThank you, Freddie,â€ I yelled to the quickly disappearing little boy. â€œThis is the best Valentine Iâ€™ve ever received.â€
Iâ€™ve been wearing that necklace every Valentineâ€™s Day for twenty years.