The lunch conversation today swirled towards fashion and how much things have changed over the years – back in OUR day, wearing jelly bracelets meant you were cool like Madonna or Cyndi Lauper, not indicating what you would or wouldn’t do with a guy. Friendship pins. Those ribbon-braided metal barrettes, with the long ribbons hanging down from one end. Satin jackets. (Oh, I was the only one at the table with that fad. But what a fad it was, and how we all had to get a different color, but the only one I found was a pale gold, and it had to suffice. I so longed for a bright pink or blue one…) One person would go to garage sales & buy items with the logo (e.g., the “Guess” tag) and her mom would sew them on her jeans. Basically, growing up when I did, we didn’t have excessive fashion tastes or needs until 6th grade. We didn’t have much money, and I recalled my first real Valentine’s Day of grade school (Third grade. Also the year of the Lunchbox Debacle (I’ll bring you that tomorrow!), and the year preceding the Snow Queen Drama.) We spent time decorating our boxes/receptacles, and the night before our big party day, there was a realization that nobody had bought any valentines for me to hand out. My mother looked at me and told me I could MAKE them. Well, I’ve been crafty my entire life, and so I got out a yellow legal pad, and started cutting out hearts. I had my list of schoolmates, and I printed their names on them and said “Happy Valentine’s Day” and then signed my name. Eventually, I ran out of paper. So I had to start using the scraps, and I had some valentines that were probably no larger than a matchbook. (I did, however, write on EVERY SINGLE ONE.) I remember staying up past my bedtime to get this done (see? the groundwork for last-minute scrambling was set in the formative years!) and it was only after everyone started putting their store-bought, glossy, colorful valentines into everyone’s boxes that I began to second-guess myself. And I felt less-than. Surprisingly, all the shame and dread came from within. Nobody teased me, and in fact, I remember my classmate Steven saying, “Jennifer? Did I get a valentine from you?” And I told him to look again….with a sick feeling in my stomach, because his name began with “W”,and I had done my yellow hearts-with-green-lines greetings in alphabetical order. So as time had progressed, and my paper supply dwindled, those folks towards the end of the alphabet got smaller and smaller and smaller pieces of paper. He found his heart, so tiny, with the words curling up around the angled side of it, so it could all fit, and my name on the back, and he held it up and read it and seemed to like it – if only because it was different from all the others.
I remember walking home from the bus, with all my store-bought valentines in my aluminum-foil-covered box, and felt the feeling that would become so familiar in my lifetime: You don’t fit in. You’re not like us. You don’t do things our way. And even in my shame, and the negative things that have happened to me because no, I didn’t fit in, or I tried to find a different way to do something, I never stopped being that person. I worked hard on those little hearts, and put my heart into making sure everyone had one from me. Sometimes people want us to be just like them, or do things their way, the storebought valentines and the sameness, because it’s comforting, familiar – or because it’s all they themselves can do. We are all bound by our own limitations and resources, and even circumstances. How we accept each other – and ultimately, ourselves, is what’s really important.