by Nancy Clark
The elementary school Valentine’s Day party has historically been the venue for prepubescents to exchange sappy sentiments like “You’re Sweet,” “Be Mine,” and “I LOVE You.” Although the observance is guaranteed to induce giggles and a bit of blushing, the practice rested under the umbrella of friendship and youthful innocence, and accepted as a fun, but genteel way of expressing non-threatening terms of endearment.
I wish someone “back in the day” had made that clear to Antonio Romeo.
Plato, himself, must have had an Antonio in his life when, perhaps in despair, he declared, “Of all the animals, the boy is the most unmanageable.” This assessment, when applied to Antonio Romeo, was grossly understated.
As I recall, Tony (only his mother called him Antonio) was in seventh grade and I was in fourth in our one room/eight grades school – circa 1950. He was a loud, brash, fearless boy who crowned himself King of Torment-Nation, setting the bar for hijinks and antics. He had no competition for the title as even “the big kids” cut him a wide swath.
Tony was an adolescent in every sense of the word. He “put a tack on teacher’s chair,” he “tied a knot in Susie’s hair;” he pilfered coins from the Congo Relief jar, and anonymously scribbled obscenities on the out-house walls with chalk he stole from the blackboard tray. Everyone knew that “Tony did it,” but no one dared to snitch.
Boys idolized Tony. The kid could catch a house fly in mid-air and hold his finger in a candle’s flame without wincing. He pinched the girls and made them cry and ran the ball field bases like a speed demon.
To the girls, he was an ill-tempered bully who taunted and teased without mercy. He pulled our hair braids, tugged at our dress ties, and inserted our names in baldy limericks.
I trembled in Tony’s presence, which was probably why he targeted me for some of his nastiest pranks. Among other things, he’d throw my notebooks into the air, sneak up behind me and scream like a banshee, and fire crabapples from the end of a tree limb to hit my bare legs … away from watchful eyes and off the school grounds. Rarely caught; rarely punished.
Tony adopted another persona for the St. Valentine’s Day party, however. On that day he exposed a softer, gentler, totally unfamiliar side, eager to share sugary sentiments antithetic on any of the other 364 days of the year. His cards were the Five and Dime store’s most elegant –flocked and flowery, with verse declaring affection that bordered on undying devotion.
He made a production of depositing his cards into the Valentine’s collection box, enunciating the name on an envelope and shooting the intended recipient “the Tony look” –a lopsided smile and raised eyebrow to a girl, a guffaw-y smirk to a boy –before dropping the card into the red-hearts spattered box. The day Tony won the toss to distribute the cards from the stuffed box, he graced me with an angelic smile and fluttered his long eyelashes as he handed me his card. I took it as a sign that my days of torment were history.
On the inside of a truly regal card, in very unregal penmanship, Tony had scribbled, “To the ugliest girl in school. I hate you, dog face. Love, Tony Romeo.”
The incongruity of the message was lost on me … my hope to feel safe from Tony’s brand of cruelty dashed. He’d sullied all of his cards with similar sassy sordidness, inducing laughter from some (mostly boys), and deep cuts to others (mostly girls). His sainted mother spent days after the party apologizing to half of the town folk for her son’s mischievousness. “My Antonio really is a fine boy,” she’d said, “but you know …boys will be boys!”
As Tony snickered; Plato sighed.
Fast forward five decades to a class reunion. The handsome and oh-so polite Antonio Romeo who asked me to dance was definitely not the Tony Romeo who “back in the day” tossed my notebooks, broke my pencils and targeted my legs. Mom had always said, “With God’s help, Tony will grow up someday.”
And so he did!
Mom also said, “This, too, shall pass, and one day you’ll write about it.”
And so I have.