A Different Kind of Valentine (All Rights Feb. 14, 2011)

This is a story by Susie Shellenberger that I’ve always loved… —Erin. B.

Years ago, I heard a story I’ve never forgotten. Chad was in the fourth grade. Because he was exceptionally small for his age, he was never chosen for teams at recess; during P.E. class when everyone had to be selected, he was always picked last.

Chad was shy. It was hard for him to talk to others, and he never knew what to say, so he just kept to himself.

He walked the one-half mile to school every day. And every morning, his mom would stand inside of the screen door and watch him leave until she couldn’t see him any longer. Every afternoon, around 3 p.m., she’d stand at the window by the kitchen sink and watch a group of fourth-grade boys laughing and kicking rocks on their way home. And about a block behind them walked Chad. Alone.

One day he came home excited and announced, “Mom, Valentine’s Day is coming soon. And I want to make valentines for every kid in my class. Will you take me to the store so I can get all the stuff?”

Her heart sank. She knew her son. He threw his whole self into everything he did. She didn’t want him to invest a lot of time and energy into something that he wouldn’t get back. But she also didn’t want to rob him of this newfound excitement. So she agreed.

After dinner, Chad broke into his piggy bank, and his mom took him to the store. He bought everything needed to make big, beautiful, homemade valentines — glitter, bright red construction paper, ribbons, white cardboard, brand-new crayons and markers and stencils.

Every day after school, Chad passed by the television, went straight to his room and worked on the valentines. Some nights his mom could hardly get him to the dinner table. She’d never seen her son so excited before.

After two weeks, he had finally completed his works of art. “Look at `em, Mom! Aren’t they great?” They were glorious. Beautiful in every sense of the word. Thirty-three bright red homemade valentines sat on his dresser that night. He dreamed of giving them away the next morning.

When he woke, his mom helped him carefully wrap the hearts in a big box. She taped it closed in case he dropped them on the way to school in his excitement and hurry.

As she watched her son leave with the box tucked under his arm, she noted that he walked with confidence. And for good reason — he had worked hard for what he carried. But her heart sank for fear that no one would remember Chad when passing out valentines to each other.

She decided to make cookies that afternoon and timed it so they’d just be coming out of the oven when he got home. That’ll take the sting out of his day, she thought. Warm, gooey, chocolate chip cookies — his favorite.

She placed the cookies in the oven at 2:45 p.m., then paced the floor. At 2:58 she pulled them out and placed them on the counter. At 3 p.m. she looked out the kitchen window and saw several fourth-grade boys laughing and bragging about their valentines. Their hands were full of little notes and cards of affirmation.

And about a block behind walked Chad. Alone. She squinted to see what he held in his hands. Books. Probably homework. His lunch pail. Any valentines? Still couldn’t tell. But she did notice he was walking faster than usual. He’s probably about to cry, she thought. And he doesn’t want anyone to see him. I’ll hold the door open for him so he can get in faster.

She walked to the front door just as he sailed past her screaming, “Mom!”

He ran into the kitchen and passed right by the warm, gooey chocolate chip cookies and spun around. It was then she saw it. One valentine. Crumpled in his little sweaty hand. It was a photocopied valentine from the teacher. Same thing for every student. Nothing special. Mom reached out to grab him in her arms, when he started screaming again.

“Mom! There were exactly 33 kids in my class. And I made exactly 33 valentines. I put a homemade valentine in every single bag. I didn’t forget anyone, Mom! I gave each kid a valentine, and I didn’t drop ’em or smash ’em. They were beautiful, Mom. And I had exactly enough for everyone. I didn’t forget, Mom. I didn’t forget one single kid! Isn’t that great?”

And she started to cry, but not because her son hadn’t received any valentines; she was moved by his selflessness. Because Chad was so focused on loving others, he hadn’t noticed when he wasn’t loved in return.

That’s not a bad idea, is it? Giving our hearts away. That’s how we can truly love and make a difference. And not just on Valentine’s Day… but every day of the year.

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