Celebrating Valentine’s with George and Abe

The wood in the classrooms and hallways at Greenwood Elementary School is what I remember. The school was 50 years old when I attended in the 1950s, and the wood floors had a worn smooth texture you could almost feel through your feet as you walked from the main hall into the classrooms.

The dark varnished wainscoting and the well-used desks gave the space a warm, comforting sense of age and tradition. Presidents Washington and Lincoln looked down from on high above the blackboard, blessing us in our pursuit of education and the American Dream. February was their month.

February was the month we did lots of projects involving those two gentlemen and scissors. For President Lincoln we colored and cut a silhouette of the bearded and top-hatted Great Emancipator. (He was the first president with a beard, we learned.) Just a few days later we cut a silhouette of our first president with his jutting chin and pigtail who never told a lie and is the Father of our Country. We pasted both cutouts on paper backgrounds and hung them around the room.

The two presidents above our heads shared the month with St. Valentine and his holiday on the 14th. That was another reason February was a good time to be in elementary school. Again we cut paper, this time sheets of red and pink to make hearts and cupids. We pasted them on the front of the paper pockets we constructed to hold the valentines we gave to each kid in class, including the special one we had for that special classmate.

Black History Month was not on February’s list of holidays and observances in the 1950s. It’s impossible to imagine how our country’s later history would have been different if it had been celebrated in elementary school back then. Maybe we would have avoided some of the tumult and anguish of the past 50 years. Or maybe not.

At any rate, adding it to February’s holiday list was a good and necessary change.

Presidents Day also was not something we observed in those days. It’s a personal opinion, of course, but combining the birthdays of those two men over our chalkboard with all the other presidents — the great the and not-so-great — into an excuse for a three-day weekend was not necessarily a good thing. I suppose elementary school teachers can still make cutouts of any president they choose — if they can find the time between all the standardized tests, that is. I just hope teachers can still find a few classroom minutes to squeeze in some St. Valentine’s Day celebrations.

The upcoming holidays made me wonder how Washington and Lincoln observed February holidays. I assume they celebrated their birthdays in a personal way among family and friends, but I was surprised to learn that the first public celebration of Washington’s birthday occurred in 1778 at Valley Forge when Proctor’s Continental Artillery Band entertained the general.

The earliest known observance of Lincoln’s birthday was in Buffalo, New York, in 1874. It was organized by Julius Francis, who had as his singular goal to make Feb. 12 a national holiday.

St. Valentine’s Day has been associated with romantic love since at least the 1300s, so both Washington and Lincoln would have known of it. I’m not sure any actual valentines were written by Washington, but something close survives.

Although Martha Washington destroyed the letters to her from her husband after his death, three were found beneath a desk drawer. In one were the lines, “I retain an unalterable affection for you, which neither time nor distance can change.”

Lincoln also leaves behind no valentine cards to his beloved, but he did write about Mary Todd: “My wife is as handsome as when she was a girl. I … fell in love with her, and, what is more, I have never fallen out.”

Let’s hope sometime during this month elementary school kids get a chance to use scissors to make valentines as well as to celebrate both Washington and Lincoln — and those other presidents, too.