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Don’t Be My Valentine

I lost my first true love 38 years ago today… as a first grader on February 14, 1982. 

His name was Rich, and he and I were in the same first-grade class at Longwood Elementary. The closest I got to Rich outside of school was a play date at my house. I remember it like it was yesterday. His mother stood behind him in his grey tee shirt and white shorts as she dropped him off for our 60 minute-long play date. I thought he looked so cute, in a heartthrob kind of way, and welcomed him into my home. Instead of playing and conversing with toys, I gave him a tour of each room in my house, including the back yard, “and here’s our porch…. And here’s our backyard,” as Rich smiled and said, ‘uh-huh.’ I was so nervous. I suppose the idea of possibly being bored with me during play was too much for me to bear. 

A few months later, my mom and step-dad told my sisters and me we were moving to a new city for a job promotion they received. Our last day of school before our move was on Valentine’s Day. I used this farewell as my chance to open my heart to Rich in my Valentine’s Day card for him.  

I wrote ‘I love you’ and signed my name on his card, then decorated his envelope with as many heart stickers as I could. Like most children, I meticulously assigned each Valentine inside my collection to each classmate, careful to not seem too lovey-dovey to those I merely liked. I had more cards than classmates in that year’s box, so I also made cards for the cafeteria ladies who smiled at me daily.

The moment to distribute cards arrived after lunchtime. I slowly pulled each envelope out of my bag to read the name of its intended recipient than responsibly put it in that person’s collection envelope. My mother popped in soon after we started to tell me it was time to leave. Panic and sadness gripped my heart, as I needed more time to review each name and distribute them correctly, including Rich’s. Mom told me there was no time to spare, and I had to hurry up, so I did. 

I rushed and tried to get the rest of my cards out to kids I would never see again. I told Mom I also had to give them to the cafeteria ladies of yesterday before we left, which she allowed. I ran to the cafeteria and gave them each their cards as they cleaned up after the final lunch shift. After I handed out the last one, I caught a glimpse of pink and purple heart stickers encrusted around the edges land in one woman’s hand. My eyes widened as I had realized I had given Rich the card intended for a cafeteria worker, and she had received an announcement of my love. 

Time was over. There was no chance to fix the matter, as we had to grab my things and go. I left with sadness for the friends I’d never see again and the truth I had wanted to release to Rich but did not.

Being my first childhood crush, I held the memory of Rich in the back of my mind throughout my childhood and adolescence. I wondered what it would have felt like for him to have known how I felt about him and asked myself if he felt the same way about me. Not only did I remember how I felt around him, I remember how I felt about myself with him: insecure, scared of rejection.

In the course of one of my seasonal trips to Dad’s house in Orlando during my freshman year of college, I spent some time with my lifelong friend, Ann. Ann and I were in freshmen college and able to drive around town. Ann arranged for us to hang out with Rich at his house. I should have handled this like a cool and confident young woman, but I regressed into an insecure little girl given the high esteem I held Rich in my mind and heart. 

I bit my lip and nervously proceeded to spend the evening with the grown-up, muscular Rich. Rich still lived in the same house as he did when we shared a first-grade classroom. His childhood photos lined the hallway walls, which led to his bedroom. I felt like my former little girl self as I walked into his bedroom with my friend to talk about what our lives were like twelve years since our last encounter. I could not bring myself to confess my childhood feelings of infatuation, fearing rejection, and humility.

Then the direction of the night changed after thirty minutes when Rich showed us photos of his Spring Break as a judge of ‘best butt of the beach’ contest. I faked my pride for his ability to look at rows of women’s butts robed in thong bikinis, according to the photographs. I was turned off. Showing my butt was not something I chose to do for fun, nor did I anticipate it would be something he would be excited to share. Rich then asked if we wanted to smoke marijuana with him. 

Ann and I did not smoke cigarettes or marijuana, so we declined. While I should have been grateful for him opening up and being comfortable enough around us to share his older interests, I left the evening disappointed. I had the ridiculous notion that our evening together had been like the playdate was twelve years prior: innocent, informative, and joyful. Suddenly the ‘Boy Ryan’ I had locked in my memory dissipated and was gone. I unfairly (and unrealistically) thought he would have aged with similar interests and core values as myself. I had been holding on to a memory, which created an expectation that did not get fulfilled. I brought this lesson into adulthood. 

Often times, memories of feelings, not people,drive expectations in relationships. When your partner’s behavior shifts and relationship dynamics change, do you re-assess and live in the reality of your relationship? Or, do you resist evolution and hold on to the initial feelings and experiences enjoyed in the beginning? 

People grow physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually at different rates and directions. What matters most is how receptive our values connect to theirs. When core values shift in a degree of disconnect, it is time to move on with peace and gratitude for the experiences. 

I believe it is better left to the imagination of what never was rather than face a personal disappointment in the relationship not living up to your unrealistic expectations. 

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