Valentine’s Day seldom rolls around without my mind drifting back to junior high, those wonderfully awful, awkward years of a person’s life. There was always an afternoon Valentine’s Day dance. It was the tradition on that day that, shortly after lunch, the teachers would march us down to the gymnasium. They were careful to watch over us to make sure no one bolted for the exit. Once in the gym, they stationed a teacher at every doorway and provided escorts for anyone desiring to use the restroom, in case that person got lost and forgot to return. Then they turned on music that was from our grandparent’s era while we boys sat on one side of the gym and the girls sat on the other, all of us playing a game of stare down.
This great event was foreshadowed by a month of dance training in P.E. The boys in our P.E. class were paired with the girls that had P.E. during the same hour. We would watch the man that was our teacher and the woman that was the girl’s teacher, demonstrate a dance, after which we all gave a half-hearted attempt to imitate what we had seen without causing permanent damage to each other’s feet. After the dance, everyone was assigned a new partner and, after another short demonstration, we again attempted this unfamiliar human ritual. This would continue on all class period day after day. After the month of training, we had all mastered the great art of taking four steps in a square, on a permanent position on the gym floor, with a member of the opposite gender locked nervously in our grasp. And thus we were all ready for the great Valentine’s Day dance.
But as the dance proceeded, the music played for about an hour with no one showing any indication of being the first to move onto the dance floor. Finally the man and woman P.E. teachers would go to the floor and dance to encourage us. After they had danced a few solos with no results, stronger action was taken. Boys were ordered into a line on their side of the gym and girls were ordered into a line facing them. We were marched forward as if moving to battle formation, until we met at the center. Whatever girl was across from us was our partner for the next dance. As soon as the dance was over, everyone scurried back to the bleachers to continue the game of stare down.
Next came the bribery. Heart shaped sugar cookies and plastic cups full of red punch were loaded onto a table that had been set up at one end of the gym. But a person could only enjoy the refreshment if they finished a dance first. There the table full of food would sit with not the slightest nibble being taken as we still sat glued to our positions. Even threats of retribution by our principal, in the form of a decrease in the length of lunch hour, could not dislodge us from our seats on those bleachers.
I know for me it wasn’t that I didn’t want to associate with the girls that were there; it was just that when I did I always said something stupid, did something stupid, or was something stupid. To make matters worse, that was the point in our lives in which the girls had matured and we boys were barely opening the door into the world of adolescence. Some of the girls stood much taller than us, and we knew they would prefer to be with boys a couple of years older.
When the bell finally rang, indicating the buses were there and it was time to go home, the principal, in exasperation would send the Valentine cookies back to the lunch room to be used for the next day’s lunch, while we all made a mad dash for the door. All I can say is that it is good that ancient man didn’t force everyone to attend junior high Valentine’s Day dances, or I’m afraid our species might have gone extinct centuries ago.