Counting the Valentines
Date: February 1, 2009
Valentine’s Day used to be my least favorite holiday. When the teacher set up that big box with the mail slot in the top, I feared that once again I’d put more valentines into it than I would get out of it. The rest of the year, I felt variously loved or unloved, but these feelings were subjective and unmeasured.
Valentine’s Day was different. My yearning to be liked turned that cheery heart-covered contrivance on the teacher’s desk into a ballot box — for a referendum on my personhood. I wasn’t an outcast or anything like that; it was just that I had a burning desire to be everybody’s favorite person all the time. Mostly I tried to cultivate popularity by clowning — superbly timed and exquisitely crafted wisecracks in class, slapstick stumbling en route to the pencil sharpener, that kind of thing.
I was the hardest-working kid in the school (including the students who did their homework), but my classmates took me for granted. Yes, they laughed, but they didn’t love me.
One day in fifth grade, I took it a step beyond mildly disruptive silliness and did something shameful. I sucker-punched the least-liked boy in class in front of as large an audience as possible. (This kind of cheap grandstanding could have been the start of a brilliant political career, but the principal showed me the wrongness of it, and I rededicated myself to unrelenting buffoonery.) Popularity is like a bank loan. The more desperately you need it, the less likely you are to get it.
Now with kids of my own, I’m not afraid that they will be unpopular. I’m afraid that they have inherited my sad need for popularity. One Saturday morning, 6-year-old Marie ran in the front door wailing in anguish.
“What happened?” I asked, checking for blood.
She sobbed, “I d-d-don’t know who-oo-oo to play with. If I play with Heather, Billy will be mad. And if I play with Billy, Heather will be mad.”
Heather and Billy live up the street from us. Because they hate each other, when the neighborhood kids play “house,” Heather and Billy pretend they are a divorced couple and Marie is their child.
“They fight over me,” she said. “Heather wants me to live in the playhouse with her, and Billy wants me to live in the garage with him. I don’t know what to do!”
Uh oh, I thought. Are her friends attracted to her because she’s too docile to stand up to them? Too intent on being universally liked? Did she inherit my problem?
I needn’t have worried. Over the years, Marie has been happy having a few loyal, intimate friends and a wider network of what she calls “my cool friends.” As teenagers, they all wore black and wanted to live in the city. Now in their 20s, they do live in the city, gathering in each other’s apartments to talk about art and theater over wine and lovingly prepared dinners made of beets and chard and other bad-tasting things.
Our youngest, Wendy, can’t stand to be alone. But her relationships are stormy and dramatic with lots of turnover and computer-enhanced animosity. She has been pursuing the sort of popularity you see in teen movies — the kind that’s about power and status and not about being liked.
However, halfway through high school, Wendy is starting to figure out that real friendship has nothing to do with defeating your enemies and eating their hearts. So there’s hope.
Our middle child, Sally, never needed my concern. As early as age 3, she showed an iron-clad, inner-directed spirit. Valentines? So what? When Sally ran for student council president in seventh grade, it wasn’t because she required approval; it was because she wanted to run things. With her cheerful strength, she has always had all the friends she needs. And she gets them by the box-lot — from summer camp, marching band and, currently, college-campus political organizations.
Loving parents want to see their children turn out better than themselves, and it’s nice to see some victories. But my own progress has been slow and my recovery incomplete. In other words, any valentines e-mailed to RickEpstein@yahoo.com would be more than welcome.