Small Conversation Hearts

We removed the cards from multiple sheets of five, and gave one to everybody. Some of us (my best friend) took our time, carefully folding at the perforations before delicately  pressing out each one and signing our names in our best penmanship. Some of us (me) punched them without regard to ripping and printed our names with such carelessness that we sometimes left out a letter, so that we could get to the bowl of Small Conversation Hearts Valentine Candy in time to collect the full set.

That was the scene presided upon by Mrs. Dee in her fifth grade classroom, Valentine’s Day 1963, Atlanta, Georgia.

Oh, but there was so much more going on, for those of us who loved.

When I arrived that morning, I opened my desk to find not one but three candy bars: Butterfinger, Payday, and Almond Joy. Wade knew which ones I liked, doggone it. All that school year I had found a present in my desk most mornings. Usually a new eraser, a colorful pencil, or a piece of hard candy. Occasionally, a candy bar. I would feel a rush of embarrassment, then I would give a sideways glance to the other side of the room and there would be Wade, smiling at me. Wade with the shiny, chubby face, the outgrown trousers, and the too-tight shirts buttoned all the way up. Wade who was sweet. I would give a little nod – the minimum I thought to be polite – and then I’d quickly look away. I wished he wouldn’t give me presents. That particular morning I really, really wished he wouldn’t have. I did not want Wade to Be Mine.

As we left the room to go to lunch, Kevin was waiting for me behind the door in the hallway. He stepped out from the shadow, looked up at me (as he was only about up to my shoulder), and didn’t smile but stared soberly at me through his thick glasses as he said, “This is for you,” and held out a neatly gift-wrapped package. I took it. And I’m pretty sure I managed to say, “Thank you.” You see, I expected something like this to happen. My mom had told me that Kevin’s mom had told her that Kevin liked me and that he talked about me all the time, and that Kevin’s mom and my mom both would be very happy if I would “please be sweet to Kevin” especially if he were to give me a gift on Valentine’s Day. I went to the girls’ room to open the present in private, and was impressed to see a French Poodle pin made of real mink fur. The kid had good taste, I’d give him that. But Kevin was not my Dear One.

In the afternoon, just as we were getting up for our last recess, Adam came by my desk. Shirttail hanging out, one shoe untied, hair uncombed, he was still dusty from the previous recess. He approached boldly, with a big, toothy smile, holding one hand behind his back. Then he dropped his surprise on my lap, and gave a boisterous shout of “Hahaha!” as he ran out to the playground.

I was frozen to my seat. Possibly my mouth was hanging open.

For there in my hands was the most beautiful stuffed-toy French Poodle that I could have imagined. A life-sized Toy, with champagne colored fur in a Royal Dutch clip. A happy little face. And a tail that was wagging, I’m almost sure of it.

I was dizzy. But if I kept sitting there Mrs. Dee would think something was wrong. So I gently laid Valentine – her name, of course – in my desk, got up, and floated into the hall.

As soon as I turned the corner, out of sight of Mrs. Dee, the girls converged on me. “It’s beautiful!” … “That’s the best gift ever!” … “He likes you!” … “What did he say?” … “What did you say?”

Looking back, I guess it’s pretty obvious how they all knew. I must have stared at Adam. I must have blushed when he looked at me. He must have looked at me, in a way that he didn’t look at the other girls. But he and I had never spoken a word to each other before then. Not one word. And to my memory, we never did after.

I was still trying to get up my nerve to go out to the playground – where HE MIGHT SEE ME! – when my friend came back in.

“He wants to know if you like it,” she whispered.

“Yes!” I whispered back. “But,” I fought back tears, “I don’t want to tell him so!”

“Leave it to me,” she said, and she went back out to the playground.

I hid in the girls’ room, till recess was over.

When the bell rang, and I could hear that most of the kids had already run back into the classroom, my friend found me.

“I told him,” she said. “I said you like the present. And that you want to say ‘thank you,’ but you’re too shy.” I had to fight the urge to cover my face with my hands, as she continued. “And he said, ‘That’s okay, tell her I understand.’”

I don’t remember going back into the classroom, or anything that happened after that. I just remember joy. Because he understood. Everything.

Yes, Adam, yes. I was Mad 4 U.


© Bette Ojala, February 14, 2015
(Happy Valentine’s Day)

2 thoughts on “Small Conversation Hearts

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