I distinctly remember whining this to my mother when I was in elementary school. Joey (whose name I have changed) was the kid in my class who had been “held back” as many times as the school system would allow. He had no friends, and he certainly was not high on my list of Valentine’s card recipients.
Joey smelled funny, like grease. He had a weird haircut. He was in the “slow” reading group.
I’m glad (now) to say that my mother’s answer was “Yes.” Yes, I had to give Joey a Valentine’s card. I “had” to give a card to every single one of my classmates.
Now I understand that my mother was teaching me kindness – and that it was not based on social class or appearance or intelligence or clothes . . . or fragrance.
Looking back, I feel deep compassion for Joey. I feel sure he lived in an abusive household. Even though back then I didn’t understand what that meant, I do remember feeling sorry for him and his sister.
I think I felt sorriest for him in fourth grade when our teacher made him crawl around his desk on his hands and knees and oink like a pig because he was messy.
As an adult, I look back at those elementary school days in the 1960s and understand so much more about human nature than I did then. But even then, I knew it was wrong to humiliate a kid like that. I knew that Joey hadn’t chosen his family. I knew he had a hard life. I sensed that the hardest part of it was behind the door of the trailer our school bus drove past every day, the trailer he lived in with his scary father, his timid mother, and his sad little sister.
I knew that he didn’t deserve to be humiliated at school, to have to crawl around and oink, that school should be a place where he was safe and warm and fed. And not humiliated.
I also remember that Joey always cleaned his lunch tray, ate every bite – every single day. Now I know that that meant he was hungry.
What did I know of hungry? I was the kid whose mother always sent a snack with her to school, the one who always had plenty to eat, the one who got to order chicken and dumplings at Morrison’s in Savannah and even order a piece of my favorite, Boston creme pie, for dessert. I never went hungry. In fact, I always had more than I could eat.
I had so, so much – of everything.
Joey had so little.
As I look back, I’m very grateful that my mother made me give Joey a Valentine’s Day card every year that he was in my class. I’m grateful that she taught me not to judge people based on things they couldn’t control. I’m grateful that she taught me not to think that I was better than anyone.
I’m glad she taught me to treat Joey like a person.
If he’s still alive, even though he may not get any Valentine’s cards, I hope Joey feels some love on this Valentine’s Day.
I’m sending him some with this memory.
And though he’ll never see this. . .
Happy Valentine’s Day, Joey.