Red paper cupids decorated the windows of room six. Mrs. Levinson stood at her desk in front of her fourth grade class and picked up the large brass bell shaped like a woman with a big hoop skirt. Mrs. Levinson was a big woman in her mid forties but to the class of ten-year olds, she seemed ancient. She loved to sing and at every major school assembly, Mrs. Levinson gave her ear-splitting rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” in her Wagnerian soprano best. And like all good Wagnerian sopranos, she had an intimidating bosom that wobbled dangerously when she sang, which made the children giggle when she sang. She was quick to anger but quick to forgive. The children liked her because when Mrs. Levinson read to them, she did all the characters and did sound effects, too. She had at least six wigs of different colors and never wore the same one two days in a row.
Mrs. Levinson rang the bell once and twenty-three boys and girls bolted from their seats and scrambled around the room placing Valentines in the oversized cut paper envelopes hanging off the fronts of their desks. The class had spent an hour that morning the girls decorating them with hearts and little cupids shooting arrows, and the boys, with cars and rocket ships. The girls giggled and squealed, the boys smirked and shoved as they raced to finish delivering their cards. After five minutes, Mrs. Levinson rang the bell again and the children quickly returned to their seats.
“You may open your Valentines, children.” More squeals from the girls as they tore open the flimsy paper envelopes that held the objects of their desire. The boys acted silly and laughed as they razzed each other about liking this or that girl. Riley didn’t like Valentines Day. She was new to this school and had only started in January. Riley didn’t really know the girls in her class yet and the boys were mostly bullies or too annoying. On the playground, Riley generally avoided playing with anyone and spent recess making daisy chains or braiding grass or making little hills in the sandy dirt at the edge of the paved play area. She wasn’t rich, she wasn’t poor. She wasn’t pretty or ugly, fat or skinny, stupid or smart, any of the things that would single her out as either being popular or a target for teasing. She kept her head down and most of the children left her alone. Not out of spite, but because they just didn’t see her. She was almost invisible.
The night before, her mother had made her sign her name on the cards they bought at the store. Her mother had chosen a boxed set of Valentines with a flower motif. Her mother read names from the class list and Riley wrote them on the front of the envelopes and randomly stuffed the cards inside. She really didn’t care who got which one. She signed the one to her teacher, which was slightly larger that the others, and carefully wrote her name on the envelope. She liked Mrs. Levinson and wanted her to admire her careful handwriting. Riley and the class were writing in cursive now and her penmanship was the best in the class. Riley was meticulous about her handwriting. She loved practicing in class with the large double lined paper, making the upper case letters match exactly the examples on the penmanship style cards. Mrs. Levinson had praised her in front of the class and put her paper up on the board as an example of perfect penmanship. This was thrilling for Riley who, while a good student, was rarely held up as an example. Oddly, her fellow students didn’t tease her or call her teacher’s pet. This praise was just a blip. After all, Riley was easy to ignore.
Riley opened one of the cards tentatively. Inside was a card with a picture of a little Indian girl and boy paddling canoes toward one another. A voice balloon over the boy’s head read “Will you be-um my heap big Valentine?” The voice balloon over the girls head read, “Yes-um and HOW!” turned it over and read the messy pencil scrawl on the back “To Riley from your friend Brian H.” There were three Brians in her class. It was a popular name in 1959. Brian H. was Brian Hanford. He was good at math and dodge ball and was generally an okay boy. He lived near Riley and sometimes she would see him around the neighborhood, riding his bike or playing with some boys. He didn’t tease the girls much, and when he did, he was never really mean. The other two Brain Green and Brian Daines, were another story. They shared a vicious streak that made Riley and most of the other students more than a little wary of them. They were the Bad Brians. They spent a lot of time in the detention corner, and even in the principle’s office.
The bell rang again and Mrs. Levinson announced that Mrs. Green, the room mother (and incidentally, mother to one of the one of the Bad Brians), was going to help pass out cupcakes and juice to the children. Riley quickly stuffed the card back into her large envelope and took the cupcake and juice offered to her. The cupcake was a homemade affair, chocolate with pink icing and a large red candy heart. Riley licked the icing from around the side and then took a bite. It was delicious. Frosting smeared on her nose and she wiped it off with her napkin.
Riley looked around the room and saw that Mrs. Levinson and Mrs. Green had stepped into the hall to talk for a moment. She could see their heads through the glass window. They seemed to be having a serious conversation. Some of the boys had taken the candy hearts off their cupcakes and were throwing them at the girls who began to shriek. One of the Bad Brians got out of his seat and was bothering Jason. He had grabbed Jason’s juice and was threatening to pour it down his shirt. Some of the children were laughing nervously, glad that it was Jason and not them who was being tormented. The other Bad Brian was running around the class. He tore one the Valentine cupids from the window and holding it up in his hand, he pretended to fly it around the room yelling, “Look out, here comes Cupid!” He ran over to Melody’s desk and smashed the Cupid into her cupcake, spilling her juice all over her Valentines. Melody began to cry loudly. Three other girls, Kelly, Julie and Debbie, banded together and cornered that Bad Brian, and held him tight while Barb dumped her juice over his head. He began to yell and punched his way out of their hold, his fist making contact with Julie’s left eye. Julie began to cry. Brian H. tried to get the other Bad Brian to settle down and stop teasing Jason but he got elbowed in the stomach and he started to first yell at Bad Brian, then he too, began to cry. Riley looked out of the hall window and could no longer see their teacher and Mrs. Green in the hall.
Riley took another bite of her cupcake and drank some juice. She finished eating and put her Valentines inside her desk. She got up from her desk and walked through the classroom of yelling, crying children and picked up Mrs. Levinson’s bell. She began to ring it, swinging it gently from side to side, slowly, and regularly. The bell had a deep tone, like the sort of bell one found in a bell choir. Riley liked the sound.
Silence fell over the room like a layer of thick pink frosting. The children looked up, expecting to see a wrathful Mrs. Levinson, and seeing that it was Riley ringing the bell, they began to shout at her. Riley stood there as they began to yell things like, “Ooo, Riley touched the teacher’s bell! You touched the teacher’s bell! You are in so much trouble! You are so bad!” She looked around the room at the spilled juice, ruined decorations and smashed cupcakes on the floor, set the bell down and walked back to her seat.
Mrs. Levinson and Mrs. Green bustled through the door. The children froze and then scattered back to their seats, some still crying softly, except for Melody, who was still wailing hysterically.
“Teacher, Riley rang your bell!”, Melody tattled between sobs. Experience had taught them to expect Mrs. Levinson to grab the bell and ring it furiously to bring them to order or to yell and heap shame upon, but all she and Mrs. Green did was stand there in the front of the room, looking at each other.
“Brian H.”, Mrs. Levinson said in a surprisingly soft voice, “will you please go with Mrs. Green.” Brian H. got up from his desk looking puzzled, but went with Mrs. Green. One of the Bad Brians said “Busted!” in a loud stage whisper, but no one laughed. Mrs. Green glared at her son who shrank back in his seat and pointed to the other Brian. They left the room, the door shutting with a soft click behind them. Mrs. Levinson looked around at the chaos.
“Children, I want to quietly and quickly clean up your desks and put away your Valentines.” Her normally commanding voice was strangely quiet. This so surprised the children that they immediately cleaned up their messes and sat back down.
“I have some very sad news to tell you. Brian’s mother has been very sick. She was taken to the hospital this morning and she”, Mrs. Levinson paused, “she has had a heart attack and she died.” Mrs. Levinson fished in her pocket for her handkerchief and dabbed at her eyes.
The class was silent. One or two of the girls who had been crying gave a few gulping sobs. A boy coughed. Someone’s chair scraped the floor.
Mrs. Levinson continued, “Brian is going to stay with his grandparents for a bit and I know you children will be very kind to Brian when he comes back to school. Now let’s have a few moments of quiet before the bell rings.” The teacher dabbed her eyes again. The class was silent. None of the children in this class had lost a parent. They could not imagine a life without a mother. It was too big to hear, too much to feel, too awful to contemplate.
The bell rang. The children quietly left to catch their school buses or walk home. Riley took her Valentines from her desk, got her coat from her locker in the hall and went outside. It began to drizzle as she headed home. She walked down the hill and passed Brian H.’s house. It was dark. When she got home, she told her mother about her day, and told her about Brian H.’s mother. Her mother reached out to give her a hug but Riley shrugged her off and went to her room. Riley sat on the bed. She thought she was supposed to cry; to weep in sympathy for Brian H. but there were no tears. She just felt lonely and sad and baffled. She spent the rest of the evening looking at her Valentines. There was one from every child in the class, even from the Bad Brians. She pinned Brian H.’s Valentine to the wall next to her bed and looked at it for a long time.
Brian H. never came back to Mrs. Levinson’s class. He had moved to Everett to live with his grandparents. Mrs. Levinson had the children write him a group letter and each child signed it and they mailed it to him but he never wrote back.