Valentine’s Day, 1980. An Elementary School Memory.

“I’ve seen so many ‘I choo choo choose you pictures online today,” I said to Anne, while we walked through our neighborhood yesterday. “I think that’s one of those things that is going to be a generational touchstone for us, if it isn’t already.”

We came to a red light, and stopped. I hit the walk button and it chirped happily at me.

“Like, you can say that to just about anyone our age, and they’ll know instantly what it is.”

My mind wanders to weird places when we walk.

The light changed and we crossed the street. “I can’t believe how hot it is,” Anne said.

“Yeah, it’s not even fun to troll my friends who are living through stormpocalypse, anymore. Like, all the jokes have been done.”

I took a drink of my water, and we walked for a few blocks in silence, not holding hands, but linking our pinky fingers, which is a thing we do when we go for a long walk.

We turned up a street that was heavily-lined with trees. In spring and summer, it’s one of the most beautiful places to walk, and yesterday gave us a preview of what the next few months will bring. Half a dozen squirrels ran around on lawns, burying and digging up acorns. Tiny finches chirped and whistled and sang as they hopped along the mostly-bare branches of a sycamore tree.

“Judging by the pollen in the air and the birds I hear every morning, nature thinks it’s already spring here, “Anne said. “If we get a real cold snap, they’re all going to be very upset.”

In my brain, the words “cold snap” and “very upset” joined together to form a key. That key slipped into a lock and turned, opening the door on a memory from 3rd grade that I’d forgotten lived inside my head.

“Remember how you’d go to school on Valentine’s day, and you’d make the little mailbox out of a bag?”

“Yeah,” she said. “I choo choo choose you, remember?”

“Right,” I said. “Well, at our school, the rule was that you had to bring valentines for everyone, which was the only way weird, awkward kids like me got valentines.

“So it was 3rd grade, and my mom took me up to the Thrifty on Foothill by the park to pick out that little box of valentines. I got some that had superheroes on it, like from Challenge of the Superfriends, and a little bag of those chalky candy hearts.”

“Why do I like those chalky candy hearts so much?” She said. She took a drink of her water.

“I don’t know, but I love them, too, which is weird because –”

“You don’t like sweet things. You’ve been telling me that for almost nineteen years.”

“I think it’s the texture, and the way they sort of snap in your teeth, and the fact that they’re not too sweet,” I said.

“Probably. Continue,” she said.

“So I went home with my valentines and my candy hearts, and I got out my class list, and I sat at the breakfast table and wrote out my valentines.

“And there was this girl in my class, and I had a little 3rd grade crush on her…” I paused for a second and that classroom flashed into my memory, almost like an old Polaroid snapshot developing and then instantly disintegrating. I could see the desks, the chalkboard, the cursive alphabet above it. The American flag and the cubbies in the back, by the bookshelves. I saw her name, written in the corner of the chalkboard, under “Line Leader” for that week: Mindy. She wrote her name with the tail of the “y” looping down and around and underlining her whole name.

“Her name was Mindy,” I said. “Mindy …” I thought for a quick second, “…Patterson*. Wow, I can’t believe I remember that.

“So I filled out my valentines, and I started putting the candy hearts into each envelope, and when I got to Mindy’s, I carefully sorted through them until I found one that said ‘kiss me’ or ‘hug me’ or something like that.

“So I had this perfect, foolproof plan to let her know that I liked her, in the one way that was … safe … I guess, for me. I put that heart into the envelope, and in the most sophisticated act of secret admirer genius, ever, didn’t sign it.”

“That’s so cute,” Anne said.

“Yeah, well, we did our little valentine exchange the next day at school. There was a little party thing that afternoon, with that sugary grocery store punch that’s so sugary it burns your throat, and one of the room mothers made cupcakes with little hearts on them. When it was time to pass out the valentines, we walked around the room, dropping them into the mailboxes we’d made the day before, that were taped to all of our desks.

“When I got to Mindy’s desk, I was very careful to make sure that nobody saw me, and I dropped her valentine into her mailbox thing.”

“You were quite the superspy in third grade,” Anne said.

“Yeah, I was James Bond Junior, for sure. So I finished delivering my valentines, and went back to my desk to open mine. While I did that, I kept sneaking little glances at her desk, wondering if she’d opened mine, and hoping that when she did, it would set in motion the Rube Goldberg machine that kids use in elementary school to tell someone they like them.

“But even though Mindy was really nice and sweet and friendly, she was friends with the Mean Girls.”

“Uh-oh,” Anne said.

“Yeah,” I said. “So I left out one crucial part of my foolproof plan, and didn’t realize that a little deductive reasoning could help even Ralph Wiggum figure out who handed out the only Superfriends valentines in the classroom.

“If I were writing this as a script or something, this is where we’d see the Mean Girls and Mindy gasping and then giggling and then turning around to face me, but all I remember is that the four Mean Girls and Mindy were standing at my desk, and one of them told me I was ‘gross’ and someone called me ‘Wil-the-Pill’, which was the delightful nickname I’d been given by the goddamn teacher in that class, and one of them said something about how she’d never kiss me.”

I realized that we’d walked a few blocks since I started my story, but had no memory of actually doing it, because my body had been in 2014, but my mind had temporarily ridden a wormhole to 1980. Anne said nothing, but squeezed my hand, and I realized that at some point during our story she’d traded hooking pinkies for actually holding hands.

“What did the girl you liked do?”

I looked as closely at the memory as I could, tried to reconstruct the semicircle of kids around my desk, to remember the smells and sounds of that classroom on that unseasonably hot February afternoon 34 years ago, but all I could get was this image of Mindy’s face, possibly on that day, maybe at some other time, her blond hair at her shoulders, her blue eyes and slightly crooked teeth, just looking at me with kindness. I realized that the reason I liked her was that she was so kind, and even though she was friends with the Mean Girls, she wasn’t one of them.

“You know, I don’t remember specifically. I was super embarrassed and super mortified, and I felt really stupid. I didn’t even try to deny it. I just sat there and waited for them to leave, and then I felt sad.”

“Awwww, that’s so sad,” she said.

“Yeah. Isn’t it weird, though, how you don’t think about something for thirty-four years, and then this seemingly unrelated series of words can click together and blast a memory into your face like a firehose that turns on and then off again in a matter of seconds?”

I felt a few seconds of sadness for third-grade-Wil, and a few moments of wistful nostalgia, too. Then, I looked at my wife.

“Anyway, I said, “I choo choo choose you.”

She squeezed my hand. “It says that, and there’s a train.”


*not her actual last name.

42 thoughts on “Valentine’s Day, 1980. An Elementary School Memory.”

  1. Just got a picture of 2014 Mindy reading this and leaving you a comment about how she liked you too.

  2. You had a Mindy too, just like Homer! “Oh Margey, you came and you bought me a turkey, on my vacation away from workey.” Also, you and Anne are adorable.

  3. I think we geeks all have Valentine’s Day stories like this. I’ve never shared mine or the hurt that comes with it. Time to let it go, I guess.

  4. I’m turning 49 in April and realized only a few years ago how I no longer obsess or bring up those kind of memories like I used to. It surprised me more to recognize how long embarrassing or “tragic” events plagued me. Might be I’m getting so old (LOL) I just can’t remember them! Either way I’m glad that although they aren’t completely gone, like you said just a word, maybe a smell, a touch, can bring things back, they aren’t with me all the time like they once seemed to be. Always enjoy reading your blog :)

  5. This story was very touching. Memories attached to a deep emotion are the strongest and it is funny how the most seemingly random things can take you back to a single moment. I must add, as a teacher, I am appalled by what that teacher called you. Those in our profession should be an example of kindness and human decency to those in our charge! I am sorry that an adult you should have been able trust to treat you with dignity was so careless with her/his words.

  6. Ugh. I was also the awkward child who would not have gotten valentine’s except for the rule you had to bring one for everyone. But I’m so glad for us strange children who grew up to be parents that could tell their own kids to be themselves.

  7. I remember having a crush on a boy in my fourth grade class and put a Valentine on his desk. Imagine my embarrassment and sadness when I found it stuffed in my desk later that day. When he started liking me in sixth grade I wasn’t interested because I never forgot what he did. Guess I still don’t.

  8. <3
    Boy, do I remember… "Diana, Princess of Whales" was my nickname… I hated school so much because I was systematically tortured like that every day… Thank God we can be loved by those that see the real "us", Wil.

  9. I remember most vividly the carnation sale in High School. You could pre-purchase flowers for Valentine’s Day, and they’d be delivered to everybody in homeroom on 2/14. I never got any, which made me so sad. I love carnations, and I honestly wanted the flower more than the Valentine. The next year, I almost bought one for myself, but decided it was just a little too pathetic. But on 2/14 that year, I got a flower! It was from Anonymous, but I didn’t care. I was so happy to not be the only flower-less person in school anymore. I found out later that the carnation had been bought for me by my best friend, who was sweet on me and too shy to say anything. But he knew how badly I wanted a flower and got me one. That made him a keeper, as far as I was concerned. I’m married to him now, and we’ve been Valentines for over eighteen years.

    1. Wow. I was going to mention the high school valentine carnation-pining, too.

      Wil, I cannot *believe* your teacher gave you that nickname. What an insensitive jackass.

  10. I must have blocked all my Valentine memories from my childhood. I read this and sat quietly trying to recall because they must have been similar, and I couldn’t. Not a one.

    I think as a coping mechanism, I needed to forget those years, so I could be free as an adult. Even sitting here trying to think back made a hard lump in my throat. I hated every second of school and 30+ years has not dulled pain, even if I can’t remember all the reasons why it hurt so much.

  11. I just hopped in my own little brain time machine and remembered being in 5th grade and having a crush on the boy who sat behind me. I have always been super clumsy, not in an adorable tv way, more of a painful and awkward way. I remember walking up the aisle of seats, and tripping over my own feet, and falling right onto the boy in his desk. Of course the whole class saw and laughed, and my face was so red, and I have never moved so fast. I think he was embarrassed, too. Why are little kids so mean? Being an awkward kid is hard.

  12. I remember when I was in third grade biking to Thrifty’s for ice cream. 15 cents for a single and 30 cents for a double and for whatever reason 40 cents for a triple.

    Later, when I moved near that Thrifty’s on Foothill, I could only go when my mom went shopping near there. The problem was that I never biked there so I never knew which stores were associated with it. Old me thinks it was Vromans and a barber shop on that same back side. The problem was that young me never said “can we go to Thriftys?” beforehand. I just hoped and waited it was the right mall before I would spring it on my mom. I was wrong a lot.

  13. Hey wil my sister Lives in Simi Valley just on the other side of the Ventura Border i see your in Los angeles you must enjoy it up thier i have to admit its Party Central here in Goleta.

  14. One thing I’ve learned during my 41 years is that these stories of our awkward, geeky youths are not unique to either gender.

    Even though it was sad at the time, though, and I felt a moment of sadness when I recounted the story (yesterday *and* today) I’m so happy now that I could change anything in my life that helped build the road I walked to get here.

  15. Egad. I did nearly the exact same thing. I put an “I love you” valentine in his (nope, not saying his name) box and didn’t sign it, haha! Anonymous! Everyone immediately figured it out, I had that same kind of valentine. I wasn’t a popular kid and this didn’t help. I was mortified and am a little embarrassed still. It was 6th grade, I was 11. So naive.

  16. I really like how you wrote the story as a conversation between you and Anne, rather than a simple flashback. We kind of know Anne the way we kind of know you, and it made for an interesting narration. I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a storyteller write a story about telling a story. I tell lots of stories, I should try this format on for size.

  17. My son (12) was determined to leave a Valentine last year for a girl he had a crush on, and it did not end well. Giggling, the mean girls staring, etc. Seeing what he goes through brings back so much if what I endured as a young kid, but also helps me support him by telling him those memories I had, bad and the good ones too. Thanks for you and your lady being in the world. It’s all a bit better with kind hearts like yours sharing your stories.

  18. Wow, I found my self walking along a street on a warm afternoon in a California suburb holding pinkies with Ann and telling her about third grade. It is a rarity to find a writer who can evoke that kind of effortless imagery with words.
    Always a pleasure,,,

  19. I remember being head-over-heels in second grade for this red-headed girl named Julie. She wore these amazing colorful, fluffy dresses to school every day, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her.

    I think I took the safe route though and just didn’t do anything but stare mutely at girls until I was older (except for a brief period where my younger step-sister’s friends kept falling for me) and so missed some of the cruelty.

    Not all of it, though 😉

    I also had a mad crush on my teacher, that year, a tall slim brunette with straight hair down to her butt and long black skirts. hehe I don’t remember anything above her waist, naturally (cuz I was so short, not cuz I was a young perv 😉 )

    Thanks for sharing your memories and bits about your day. <3

  20. Wil,
    I’ve been a fan for many many many years. Sadly, this is the first time I ever read your blog, but thought it was really good. You are a great writer. Very Impressive! I appreciate you sharing such a personal story from your past. Anne sounds wonderful and I’m glad you found someone who loves you so much. I bet Mindy was kicking herself years later when the “geek” turned out to be YOU!

  21. I third grade I had insect themed Valentines Day cards. I’m not sure who thought that was a good idea. The pack had one card that was four times the size of the other cards and folded into quads. It said something like “I’m buggy over you” and had a boy and girl bug sitting on a giant mushroom looking at the moon. In an incredible feat of bravery, I addressed signed my name on it and put it into a card with the name “Audra”, my third grade crush.

    On the day we opened them, the teacher had Audra sit in the empty seat next to me (I’m not sure why). I quickly realized my crush was going to open this super big card from me while I was sitting right next to her. I quickly formulated a plan.

    From the corner of my eye I saw her unfold my card. She looked at me held the card up and said “Norman?” (which is the name I went by in 3rd grade) I quickly stammered that I didn’t look at the cards when I was putting them into the envelopes and convinced her that she got that card completely by random. Then I focused really hard on opening my own cards.

    tl;dr I was just as much a coward in third grade as I was in high school.

  22. Great story and I identify with awkward school valentine moments. You’re so right about the generational touchstone – and it is one that has crossed time, space and cultures: I’m from England, live in Budapest, and last year my wife, who is Hungarian, gave me an “I choo choo choose you” valentine. Best. Card. Ever!

  23. Reading these kinds of stories in your blog and in your wife’s blog inspire me to restart my own writing. Happy weekend, blessings from the Philippines :)

  24. I’ve lived that story, or something similar, in its own way… and hadn’t thought of it in years, until I read this. You conveyed the feeling of it brilliantly, it made my own memories pop back in all their detail. Ultimately though, it made the whole memory nicer by association I guess, so thanks for the share.

  25. Once again. I’m impressed and INSPIRED by your writing. You sure are good! I really enjoyed that, made ME go down memory lane too. Your writing EFFECTS people. Very cool man, just sayin’ :-)

  26. Great story Wil! It seemed as if you were almost channeling your inner Stephen King. I was picturing you and Anne as young teenagers on your walk with rolled bedrolls on your backs, eating candy Pez hearts and anticipating the inevitable dead body by the railroad tracks.

  27. Your story really brought me back to my elementary days. I remember relentlessly pouring through the box of valentines to pick out just the “right” valentine for my crush. Mercifully, I never had a gaggle of mean girls surrounding my desk making fun of me for it – that sounds awful. Meanwhile, that teacher sounds horrible – nick naming you Wil-the-Pill – just awful!

  28. And this is exactly why I think the rule in elementary school should always be that you bring valentines for everyone, so that the “weird” kids are not left out. Some people say, “in real life no one’s friends with everybody, I’m not going to make my kid give valentines to someone they don’t like.” That’s easy to say if it’s not your kid being left out because hardly anyone thinks to give him/her a valentine. Also, sometimes we need to be nice to people even if we don’t want to. Nothing wrong with teaching kids that.
    When I was in elementary school, I don’t remember anyone ever objecting to the rule. It was pretty much a given that you gave valentines to your whole class. I actually loved picking out valentines each year, and then going through the class list and writing out a name and choosing a sticker for each one. I liked it so much that even now, at 22 years old, if I see those packs of 32 valentines in card stores in February, I feel a little nostalgic thrill rush through me. I always liked getting valentines too and looking at all the different ones I would get with all the different themes.
    I guess I sort of had the opposite experience of most people here. Valentine’s Day didn’t start to suck until junior high, and now that I’m an adult it’s just a frivolous, cheesy holiday that nonetheless serves as an unwelcome reminder that I don’t have a boyfriend.

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