It was the first week in February, and it wasn’t like our lives were getting any easier.
Our parents, having disappeared on New Year’s Eve when Mommy went to the kitchen to get eggnog and Daddy went out to the woodshed for more firewood, were still missing. Or dead.
We still hadn’t found a way to get into the home of our evil neighbor the Wicket so we could find out what she had stolen from Mommy’s Top Secret folder.
And we were still in the third grade at the Whistle Stop, a private school running from kindergarten through twelfth grade, where we were forced to wear ugly yellow plaid uniforms.
We were at the Whistle Stop that morning. Our only classmates were Will Simms, a towheaded boy we liked, and Mandy Stenko, a redheaded girl we didn’t. Our teacher, Mrs. McGillicuddy, known to us Eights as the McG, was going on and on about something. The McG was a tall blonde with a long nose, on the bridge of which perched horn-rimmed glasses. On this particular morning, the thing she was going on and on about was hearts.
“The heart,” the McG said, “is the organ that pumps blood through your body.” “I’m pretty sure we knew that already,” Georgia said.
“Is there going to be a test on this?” Petal wanted to know.
The McG ignored us.
“The heart,” the McG went on, “is also one of four symbols on playing cards, the other three being the club, the diamond, and the spade.” “Does this have anything to do with you giving Will soccer trading cards for his birthday last month?” Durinda asked.
“Will doesn’t even like soccer,” Rebecca pointed out, forgetting how Annie had encouraged us to pretend he did on the day the McG had given Will the cards.
The McG glared at us.
“Sorry,” Jackie said with a peacemaking shrug. “We thought you’d want to know.” The McG ignored us some more.
“There are several holidays in the month of February,” the McG went on. “Some are national, like Presidents’ Day; one has to do with predicting the weather for the next six weeks; and the third is of a far more important nature. Does anyone know the most important holiday in February?” “Groundhog Day?” Marcia suggested. Then she observed, “It should be. The weather is very important to farmers, not that we know any farmers.” “Do we get presents on Groundhog Day?” Zinnia asked, her eyes lighting up. We could be wrong about this, but we were pretty certain the McG was getting frustrated with us.
“No, of course it’s not Groundhog Day!” the McG practically shouted. “How could it—?” She shook her head, as though refusing to travel down a particular conversational road with us for fear of what it might do to her brain. She forced a sweet smile. “Anyone else have any ideas?” Mandy Stenko raised her hand eagerly. You’d think she had to go to the bathroom or something.
That was Mandy all over. The rest of us never bothered raising our hands before saying what was on our minds.
Mandy squirmed in her chair until we all started thinking she really did have to go to the bathroom. But the McG finally called on her and Mandy stopped squirming.
“Yes, Mandy?” “Valentine’s Day!” Mandy burst out. And once the cork had been taken out of the Mandy bottle, there was no stopping her. “Valentine’s Day,” she continued breathlessly, “is the holiday that occurs each year on February fourteenth. My mother says it’s a day when people should give other people flowers or candy or gifts. My father says it was invented by the greeting-card companies and that it is a poor trick to play on husbands who shouldn’t be expected to know the exact right gift without someone telling them first.” “That’s a rather . . . novel interpretation,” the McG said. “But you left out one important thing in your recitation.” Mandy looked at the McG, puzzled.
Okay, we’ll admit it: we were all puzzled.
“You left out romance,” the McG said, a wistful expression overtaking her usually stern face. “You left out love.” What was the McG talking about?
Love Had Principal Freud’s forcing her to be our teacher since last September caused the McG to lose whatever was left of her tiny little mind? “The heart of something,” the McG said, “can be said to be the center of that thing. And the heart itself, that organ that beats in your chest at the average rate of seventy-two beats per minute, can be said to be the center of love.” She removed her glasses. Then she wiped a tear from her eye, replaced her glasses on her nose, and went on. “When you give your red folders to your parents this week, be sure they look at them very carefully.” Everry Tuesday, red folders containing Important Papers were sent home. It was Annie’s job, since it was her power to be as smart as an adult when she had to be, to go through the red folders. Now that our parents were gone, she made sure that everything was done as it should be and nothing aroused the suspicions of the People in Authority.
We may not have had parents anymore, at least not anywhere we could see them, but we did have Annie.
We were confident Annie would never make a mistake that would land us in the stew.
“This week’s red folders,” the McG went on, which we thought was silly since she’d just told us to have our parents look at them very carefully, “will contain special information about our upcoming celebration of Valentine’s Day, the holiday of love. It is critical that all instructions be followed to a T.” “Why do people always say ‘to a T’?” Will asked. Eight heads, ours, swiveled to look at Will. “I mean,” Will went on, amiable as always, “I don’t want to be difficult, but why isn’t the phrase ‘to an A’? Or ‘to a D’ or ‘to a G’ or ‘to a J’ or ‘to an M’ or ‘to a P’ or ‘to an R’ or ‘to a Z’? It just seems to me that every time one of you educators or parents uses that ‘to a T’ phrase, you run the risk of making all the other letters in the alphabet feel bad.” We suppose we should have paid more attention to the McG’s Special Instructions Regarding Valentine’s Day.
We definitely should have read the contents of the folder more carefully. The two-sheet printout, stapled together at the top, said: “Valentines: You will need to make or buy one for each of the following classmates so that it will be fair and everyone will have a good time. Please keep this handy checklist with you when you do your shopping and fill out your valentines because it is critical that no one feel left out (but of course don’t make one for yourself because that would be silly, also it would look like you perhaps like yourself a bit too much):
P.S. For valentine-making purposes, your teacher’s name is spelled Mrs. McGillicuddy.
We blame Annie for what happened later. It was her job to see that all the Important Papers in the Tuesday ...