There were no masks on our faces (or on our hearts)
Today, a week early, I celebrated Valentines’ Day at my small North Carolina high school.
I gave out thirty, and I got thirty back.
And there were no cutesy cards with cliched messages. No roses. No romantic background music to make the moment special.
Just a computer screen, sixty suffering adolescents, and one suffering teacher.
I held it together for most of the day.
My first three classes were uneventful. The beginning of the class involved reading and discussing a short story. The class ended with a gentle reminder to students who had not turned in essays that they needed to get it done, or their grades would suffer.
But when the last class of the day arrived, all it took was one look at the faces of my “children,” and I broke down. We broke down together.
You could see the utter sadness that transcended the glare of the computer screen, the extreme weakness that comes from hanging onto a monkey bar and knowing your hands could slip at any minute.
I urged them to tell me what was wrong.
One mentioned her grandfather had recently died of COVID.
I felt a rebellious tear fight its way down my cheeks.
Many others mentioned that they couldn’t manage to find the motivation to do their work. That is was piling up, and that was making their depression worse.
More tears rolled.
Tears at this point, I decided not to hide. And honestly, even I had wanted to disguise them, I couldn’t.
I told them I loved them. I told them not to give up.
I reminded them there were only three more months of school, and then they could have some relief from the bitter box this pandemic had so cruelly shoved them into.
Then I told my truth.
I told them I didn’t want them to come back and that I was scared they would return.
I told them I had family who were in high-risk categories. That I was terrified I would catch the virus and be sick or pass it on to those people I loved.
I told them I was nervous about the school board meeting scheduled for tomorrow, one where they would decide if we would finally return to school after being virtual since March of last year.
I told them I suffered from anxiety, and though I loved them, I was barely hanging on in my relatively safe environment.
I was struggling.
Just like they were.
A silence that told me they understood and respected my honesty.
Even though many of them wanted the opposite decision from the board.
No teenage words that I was foolish. No arguing that it was safe. No smart-aleck comments that other schools not held virtually were doing just fine.
But I wasn’t surprised at this amazing show of maturity, even from students whose favorite things are scrolling Instagram and laughing at funny YouTube videos.
A glance at the computer screen told me they felt my pain. They understood it.
Just like they knew I understood theirs.
Somehow, we returned to the lesson. The short story that they could care less about.
But after this conversation, there was an inexplicable weightlessness to the rest of the class. Gravity had shifted in all our favors, and while the inner turmoil had not ended for any of us, it had paused.
And pauses are beautiful things.
And the reason for this powerful pause was the fact that they had listened to me with compassion, and I had done the same for them.
That was the way we exchanged valentines.
And that’s the way the whole world needs to exchange them as well.
By looking at each other and understanding the pain in another person’s eyes. And not only understanding it but reaching out to make the suffering just a little bit lighter.
By forgetting about the things that divide us and concentrating on the things that connect us.
That is the way love should be shown every day, not just on a day where giant balloons and cuddly teddy bears are seen everywhere you go.
Giant balloons don’t heal. They don’t lighten suffering.
Love does that. Unity does that. Compassion does that.
Those are the valentines we should be giving.
Especially now when there is no single person whose eyes don’t hold some silent mark of heartache.
Though I celebrated Valentine’s Day with my students, I will still celebrate it with my husband.
Maybe with Bojangles, our favorite Door Dash order. Perhaps with leftovers from yesterday’s meal.
And it doesn’t matter if a bouquet of roses ever shows up on my door.
All that matters is that he sees my eyes, and I see his.
He’s looked into them with love for twenty years, and I have tried my best to return the favor.
And that one thing is what the whole world should do more of on Valentine’s Day.
And every day before and every day after February 14th.