If you were to walk into Hampton Elementary back in 1962, you would find your basic rural school building with hard linoleum tile floors and drably painted concrete block walls. The aroma of disinfectants from the previous night’s janitorial mopping would make you rub your eyes and scrunch up your nose. That coupled with a hint of vomit odor from the day before is enough to make you think twice about the chicken fried patty with green beans and a carton of Atlanta Dairies milk for lunch.
Across from the front office is a huge bank of windows. The sun streams through the window frames and casts a shadow across the floor that reminds you of prison bars. When I started first grade, this is where we stood in line to get our vaccine shot. The nurse, dressed all in white, used a small medical tool that reminded me of a pistol that Buck Rogers might have used in outer space.
My mama showed me her scar. “It’ll sting just a little bit, but only for a second. You’ll be fine. You roll your shirt sleeve up like a big boy and it’ll be over before you know it.”
We also had our eyes tested in that same spot. Small children standing on a strip of tape on the floor and reading off letters on a chart. “E.” The first line was easy. F, S, D, C, O, T, Z. The second line wasn’t hard, but I eventually failed the eye exam. I’ve been wearing corrective lenses ever since.
But all of this is not why I’m here. I’m here to take you down the hall to Miss Cutie Peebles second grade classroom. On the right is a water fountain. On the left is Miss Betty Gibbs first grade class. I have a pencil lead still in my left thigh from that room.
On the right is the library. I used to think that this had to be the biggest library in the whole world. I’d never seen so many books. My sister was a reader. Nancy Drew. The Black Stallion. Alice in Wonderland. I hated reading. As far as I can remember, I never actually owned a book until I had to buy them for college, except books by Charles Shultz which didn’t count as real books.
It was in the library where we had our class pictures taken. A set of risers against the back wall in front of the books. The front row of kids sitting cross-legged on the floor with hands folded in their laps. Two of them holding the black felt sign board with white letters pushed into the little grooves. The letters spelled out which grade we were, and it had the teacher’s name at the bottom. I still know some of those kids in that picture to this day. You know who you are.
Anyway, on past the library and down the hall to the last room on the left. This is Miss Cutie’s room. The large solid wood door opens easily. Behind the door and to the left is the small one toilet facility. Each classroom had one. If a kid needed to go, he didn’t have very far to go in order to go. And if he stayed too long, Miss Cutie could knock on the door to encourage him to move the process along.
Across the back wall was a long counter with a sink and with shelves and with cabinet doors for storage. On the side opposite the door was a wall of windows just like the ones up front in the main hall. The bottom windows could be unlatched and tilted inward. The entire bank of windows was covered with venetian blinds that could be closed if the sun got too bright. There was a door in the corner at the far end of the windows, which was our escape route to recess.
Up front, of course, was Miss Cutie’s desk. The chalk board with the alphabet stuck to the wall above it. Print and cursive letters on cards with pink and blue lines to show us where to start and stop our awkward attempts at making proper letters.
Then, if you let your eyes come on around to the wall just inside the main door to the hallway, you’ll see two tall cabinets about 15 feet apart, separated by a shelf that runs between them at just over head height to a 6-year-old. Underneath that shelf, there are coat hooks full of jackets. It is February in Georgia. Cool enough for a jacket in the morning. Hot enough for shorts in the afternoon.
The odd thing, you’ll notice, is that the front of that shelf is covered with little white paper sacks. The same size as our lunch sacks, but white. Each one decorated with red hearts and glitter. Each one with our names written on the outside. Each one taped to the front of the shelf and hung there as a receptacle of love.
Our assignment was to bring candy and valentine notes to drop in each sack. Our mothers reminded us to include everyone.
“I don’t care if you’re not best friends with Eddy or Susan or Rosemary. You put a valentine and a piece of candy in each sack.
“No one should feel left out on Valentine’s Day. You hear me?”
“Yes ma’am. I hear you.”
This was nerve racking. A six-year-old is not ready for commitment. An entire lifetime of possibilities could fall off the rails here. Sure, you’re thinking about stealing a kiss on the playground, but you have to be careful with your expressions of affection. Put the wrong candy heart in the wrong sack and “Be Mine” could get you in all kinds of trouble for the rest of the year. You could end up with the creepy girl winking at you on the playground.
When you really stop and think about it, Valentines are waisted on second graders. There is no possibility for true love among kids with dirty tennis shoes and Brylcreem in their hair. Freckles and braided hair and horned rim glasses and cooties are not the best foundation for love.
Besides, I’m way beyond second grade now. At least, in most ways. And my concept of love has changed a lot.
For Beth and me, Valentine’s Day got more and more simplified over the years. That doesn’t mean that it got less important. Not one bit. We just got to the point where it wasn’t necessary to contribute quite as much to the nearly $30 million dollar holiday of love. The fine diners. The expensive gifts. The night out on the town.
We had each other, and that was enough. I could steal a kiss most any time I wanted.
I asked her a long time ago to “Be My Valentine.” I am so glad she stuck with me. I’ve kept some of the cards she gave me over the years. In some way, they all say the same thing, “Be Mine.”
If she were here, I’d want her to know, I still am and will always be.