One of the reasons I love teaching English Language learners is that so often my students “enlighten me” about life in America. It most frequently happens when I try to cover some aspect of American culture and their pointed observations and questions offer a fresh perspective worth deeper consideration.
One year, when I was trying to explain the American traditions surrounding Valentine’s Day, a student asked “Is Valentine’s Day such a big deal here because Americans are just too busy to tell or show the people that they love how they feel and so there is a holiday to remind you?” For at least a month after that, I tried to remember to reach out to the important people in my life more regularly. Every year my students explain that in their culture they have a Valentine’s Day but that it focuses primarily on the romantic love between a man and a women. Then we all have a laugh about American Valentine’s Day being a favorite Hallmark-florist-restaurant holiday. I try to explain that I buy a sweet gushy Valentine card for my elderly Auntie, funny ones for my husband and send little Valentine’s candies to my kids and my nieces and nephews who are probably a little embarrassed at this point when they open their college mailboxes.
Despite the humor, I view the typical American “over the top” response with a kinder eye. For starters my first and very fondest memories of Valentine’s begin with my own mother who was exceptional in taking time to both tell and show the people in her life that she loved them. Every year she baked a delicious heart-shaped cake from scratch that filled the house with smells of love. Even more vivid is a memory that only just surfaced after this classroom discussion.
I was about nine years old and I had never been so proud of anything as I was of the Valentine creation I had made in art class. Having a very artistic sister, I never imagined myself being crafty but for some reason that year the combination of crepe paper, lace hearts and shiny stickers produced something I was bursting to share with my mother. I sat on the bus ride home guarding it with intensity until my bus reached its destination and I raced home in an unexpected rain shower. When I arrived, much to my dismay, the Valentine was wet, the vivid colors of red and the messages of love had bled. I recall feeling embarrassed by how old I was and how much I cared about this card for my mother; nevertheless I burst into tears. My mother, who always knew what to do, immediately patted the Valentine dry while effusing about its beauty and how the smeared effect only added it it’s creativity.
Maybe it makes sense that the memory of my most beautiful Valentine was for my mother, not my sweetheart, and so I thought about what it means to be a mother myself. When it comes to the real deal, we all know love can’t and never will be captured in those Hallmark messages. Now after being a mother for over twenty-two years, I am in awe of what I’ve learned. I believe, ultimately the best thing you can give to your children is to teach them “how to love”.
So the measure of my success in the most important job I have ever had is how much my children embrace the world and beyond and share the limitless gift of love. On Valentine’s day this year I emailed my college-aged daughter and said how much I missed her. She responded “Today was the best day EVER student teaching…I’m wearing the red sweater you gave me and the kids are bouncing off the walls with excitement about activities planned for the day”. Wistfully in a moment of nostalgia, I told her I missed the homemade Valentine’s my three children used to make me. She immediately responded “Oh Mom, I have a whole basket full I’m taking home”.
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