It was February 12 and much too cold to play outside. It was so cold that Tommy had gone past wishing for snow to wondering if it would ever come.
Tommy’s teacher, Miss Peters, had declared Friday afternoon craft time. Soon the students’ desks were covered with red, pink, and white construction paper and white paste. Most were working on valentines for their moms, dads, grandparents, and friends. Some were even making cards for their brothers and sisters.
Tommy wasn’t making a valentine for his mother. And he didn’t have any brothers or sisters. His best friend, Mike, probably wouldn’t get too choked up about receiving a valentine from him. But Tommy’s valentine was very, very special, and he was taking great care in making it.
First, he painstakingly cut out a large red heart. He frowned because it was a little uneven, then decided that was OK since it was so big. He chewed on his bottom lip as he struggled to get some crinkly paper on just right. It went all around the edges of the big valentine. When he was finished, he was proud to see that his valentine looked just right.
Just then, Jimmy walked past Tommy’s desk, looked at the valentine, and shouted, “Hey! It’s a mushy valentine! Tommy’s making a mushy valentine!”
Most of the class turned and craned their necks to get a peek at Tommy’s valentine. He wished a hole would open up and swallow him and his card. Then he wished one would open up and swallow Jimmy.
Jimmy leaned over the valentine, as if trying to see it better. “Is it for a girl friend?” He asked in a syrupy-sweet voice. There were giggles from the girls and outright laughs from the guys.
“No,” Tommy almost shouted, “it isn’t. Leave me alone, Jimmy.”
But Jimmy was having fun. “Ah, come on—who is it for?”
“Jimmy, stop that teasing right now and return to your desk.” Miss Peters scolded. A hush fell over the room as she came down the aisle. “I believe you should be working at your own desk.”
Unabashed, Jimmy sat down at his desk with a smirk on his face.
Miss Peters turned to Tommy, and said, “That really is a lovely valentine, Tommy. Is it for your mother?”
Tommy almost lied and said yes, but he knew that that would be wrong. “No, ma’am.”
“Oh. Well, I bet it’s for someone very special,”
Tommy nodded, then quickly looked down when someone made kissing noises.
“Class!” Miss Peters said sharply. There was silence. “Well, Tommy, I’m sure whoever it’s for will love it.”
“Thanks,” he mumbled.
She looked sharply at the rest of the class. “Do we want to work on valentines or math?” Twenty-six heads quickly bent back over pink and red construction paper.
Tommy didn’t feel like working on his special valentine anymore. He cleaned up the scraps of construction paper that had fallen from his desk, put his glue and scissors on the tray inside his desk, and stared for a moment at his valentine. Then he quickly hid it in his backpack. It was a silly old lopsided heart, anyway.
When the bell rang, he went miserably and silently to get his coat, trying to ignore the kissing sounds and giggles that came his way.
His feet felt like lead as he started toward the care center. What does Jimmy know, anyway? he asked himself. All the kids are just mean. Tommy kicked a rock. He paused at the intersection of Brook and Eastside. He wanted to go home, but his mother and Mrs. Elderberry were expecting him.
He paused when he got to the care center and thought again of the valentine he had made. Oh well, Mrs. Elderberry won’t be expecting a valentine, anyway. Racing up the steps, he dashed through the front door.
After he checked in with his mother, who was working the late shift, he waved hello to Mrs. Smith and shadowboxed with Mr. Barnes. Tommy had a lot of friends there. When his mother had to work late, he came and ate supper with her, then spent the rest of the evening listening to stories told by Mrs. Thompson and old Frank, or playing checkers with Mr. Barnes. He usually got a lot of help with his homework, too.
Yes, he had a lot of friends here, but Mrs. Elderberry was very, very special. Tommy knocked on her door.
The gray-haired lady’s face lit up when she saw him. “Come in, Thomas, come in.” She motioned toward a blue chair near the curtained window. “Please sit down.”
He waited until she had sat down—Mrs. Elderberry was big on politeness—then, after dropping his backpack on the floor, happily snuggled into the comfortable velvet chair that had come from her home. “It’s going to snow tonight,” he announced.
She looked out the window and up at the heavy, grayish-white clouds that hung overhead. “Why, I believe you are right.” She smiled. “How was school today, Thomas?”
“Fine,” he answered with a shrug. Immediately he felt all tied up inside. Mrs. Elderberry was the one he told everything to. She was the one who knew all his secrets, even the one about when he had accidently let his pet snake loose in the apartment and managed to find it only seconds before his mother had walked in the door.
Mrs. Elderberry was also the one he could talk to about his father dying and how sad it still made him feel. He couldn’t talk to his mother about it because she always started crying, and that just made him feel worse. So he talked to Mrs. Elderberry, who listened and never ever told him that he was too big to cry. But he couldn’t tell Mrs. Elderberry about the teasing that had led to a crumpled valentine.
They drank cocoa, played checkers, and talked about the possibility of snow. The room was warm and the cocoa was hot and Tommy was happy. He told Mrs. Elderberry about the football game his uncle had taken him to, and she told him a funny story about old Mrs. Lipton losing her teeth again. He was glad that she had heard from her daughter, but upset along with her because it had been three weeks since she had heard from her son. Before Tommy knew it, two hours had passed and the dinner gong was sounding.
“After you finish your homework, come back, and we’ll watch TV,” she told him as he picked up his backpack.
“Sure.” Tommy hurried out into the hallway. His stomach was suddenly telling him just how hungry he was.
Outside Mrs. Elderberry’s room, he paused. The valentine was giving him a guilty conscience. He pulled it out of his backpack and stared thoughtfully at it. Slowly he walked back to her door and slipped the valentine underneath it.
He was her friend and she was his friend, and that was all that mattered.