In a Valentine’s Day post I made here in 2010 (A Valentine Memory: Art, Love, and Pain in the First Grade) I recalled an incident from back when I was in the first grade. At least I thought it was the first grade. I went back and forth trying to decide whether it was the first or the second, finally deciding to go with my longstanding conviction that it had been the first grade. My mind has evidently continued to work on the problem in the unconscious background, and I am now almost completely sure that I combined two strongly remembered events, separated by a year, into one, which was the source of my uncertainty. I recommend to anyone that wants to understand fully the rest of this post that they go back to the original post, linked to above.
The emotional truth remains. The terrible dread I felt as I had to make and then present the “I love you” cards to all the girls in the class was real. The pain of disappointment I felt as Carol tossed my card aside disdainfully was true, and I can still feel it. My mind knitted together the two events into a narrative that enhanced the story in a way.
I did have to make the cards for the girls in the first grade, but Carol was not the girl I “claimed” in the first grade. Linda Jane was. Linda Jane had moved across town before the second grade and attended a different school that year.
Carol was the girl whose esteem I most valued in the second grade, which seemed right as I was trying to decide before, since I knew Linda Jane had been every boy’s dream girl in the first grade. But in order to sensibly make the two events become one, I had pretty well convinced myself that by the second semester my affection had been transferred to Carol. The thing that really made me realize I’d been wrong is that I clearly had the feeling that I was in my second grade classroom, as I watched Carol look through her stack of Valentine cards. I am totally sure of that now, in a way I could never explain. Somehow that vague feeling of the room I was in kept getting stronger to the point of certainty. Yes, I was seven years old, and not six.
I was tempted not to make this confession of my having joined together into one the two episodes from my early life, but the very fact that my mind came up with a plausible way to do it is interesting, and full adherence to the truth demands disclosure to the few that have actually read the original reminiscence. I imagine—not saying I remember now—that I did give special care to the card I made for Linda Jane, wanting to please her and gain her attention.
I also imagine that there was something special about the card I gave to Carol, something that would distinguish it from the silly “Bee mine” cards, even though it was not handmade, as all the first grade cards had been. Yes, I’m feeling that. It must have been a more expensive and expressive card of the type a boy would give to his girl friend. I would not have been watching so expectantly for her reaction otherwise. That makes it even worse, as the intent would have been more obvious. Yes, I feel pretty sure that was the case now. There’s really no reason for me to have been so interested in her response otherwise.
So, all I got wrong was my hope that my artistic talent would win favor with Carol, but that is only wrong for the imagined card. I certainly did hope to impress with my drawing ability. Naturally, the only boy in the class that could draw as well as or better than I was Philip, the boy Carol really liked. I might as well illustrate that with another memory involving Carol and Philip. We learned cursive handwriting in the second grade, and our ability to form the letters beautifully was a great point of pride. Cursive writing, as we saw it, fit into the category of artistic achievement. I know we also viewed it as a step into maturity to master handwriting.
Philip, Carol, and I must have had seats in the classroom very close to each other. I recall a time we were working on our cursive writing. I was evidently very impressed with my results as compared with Phillip’s and saw an opportunity to gain an advantage over him in Carol’s eyes by drawing her attention to our writing and asking her to judge which was better. This was entirely my doing. Though only seven years old, Carol was diplomatic. They were both really good, and she really couldn’t choose one over the other. I knew she was just trying to spare Phillip’s feelings, but I was not letting this opportunity slip by. I insisted that she choose which got the prize. Seeing that I would not relent, she reluctantly admitted that Phillip’s was just a little better. I was dumbfounded.
That is the merciful end of the memory. I have no memory of any expression on Phillip’s face. Or Carol’s. If I argued the point further, the memory of it has been mercifully obliterated. Nor can I begin to make out what our writing samples were like. Probably they were similar. At the time I was sure Carol’s decision just showed how much she preferred Philip to me, since I could see, as anyone could, that my handwriting was clearly superior to his. Thus gross injustice was added to the disappointed hope of winning favor, which made it even more crushing, because it meant there was no hope for me with her.
But did I really abandon hope? Which came first—the handwriting contest or Valentine’s Day? In any case, I know I really fell for Carol Ann, Snow White to my Prince Charming (walk on role), in our class’s stage production of Books Are Our Friends before the year was over. Sadly, she moved out of town in the summer. But the memory of regret is weaker than the memory of rejection.
So strange to enter again into my seven-year-old mind and feel once more the staggering smackdown of the handwriting judgment. I can never know how my life would have been different, if in any significant way, but for that hard lesson, but I know that it taught me not to be so sure of myself, perhaps at the everlasting expense of my self-confidence. In any case, those memories of painful disappointment (along with those of great joy) are among the few that persist.
ADDENDUM (February 15, 2013): My mind has not stopped trying to complete my memory of those long ago Valentine’s Days and has come up with yet another version that brings the two events closer to the single one I described three years ago. I have come to believe that I did make a Valentine card for Carol in the second grade. I’m sure it wouldn’t have said “I love you,” but it might have said “Be my Valentine.” It would have been the only one I made by hand that year. It’s a little hard for me to imagine myself having the courage to do that, but when I think about how I watched to see Carol’s reaction and how crushed I was when she tossed it aside with hardly a glance, I feel that it had to have been a rejection of more than a card I had bought. As I mentioned above, I did rate my artistic ability highly, never mind how accurately. It would also explain how I so easily conflated the two events when I first wrote about them. As of now I’d say I’m 95% sure that the making of cards for all the girls at the insistence of my mother was in the first grade and 95% sure that the watching for Carol’s reaction when she looked at my card was in the second grade. I’m at a somewhat shakier 90% certainty that it was an artistic creation of mine that Carol disdained. And that is the last I will have to say about it.