It’s Valentine’s Day today, my 28th one.
I was never a sucker for the holiday but I’ve always been a fan of love, all incarnations of it — yes, even the highly commercialized capitalistic one. I find it sweet to watch boys fumble for the perfect gesture; to see girls walk hurriedly on the street, their arms weighed down by twelve-stemmed bouquets. I am no hopeless romantic but I like that we get a day — an odd, ordinary day — to bask in the sticky sweetness of Filipino kilig.
I arrive in school at 8:30 in the morning. My students run through the corridor, glee on their faces, some hopeful, some happy, some rolling their eyes at the silliness of it all, but most bursting out with cheers of merriment.
We all co-exist in this tiny college. What else is there to do but share in the joy?
“Happy Valentine’s Day, Miss!!!!!!!” they scream from the other side of the hall. The girls sidle up next to me and give me hugs. A curly-haired 19-year-old known for his bear hugs and quick wit politely asks if I can be his Valentine. I laugh and accept. There are chuckles and giggles, stories bouncing off every corner. It’s the kind of scene you’d expect from boys and girls with young hearts.
This day has never meant much to me. And, contrary to the lament of many singles, I think it is kind to the ordinary bystander. I think it is kind to us, the unromanced, who like watching scenes unfold. Perhaps — and this is arguable — it is most kind to the ones who like to paint their day with words. Today is all kinds of colorful and that is why I like it.
My first class is slow. I ask the kids to regale me with their own stories of love and loss. They tell me about how they met their current partners. Gaby shares about her first boyfriend and ends up unraveling a modern day tale that finds its origins in online gaming. Leo and Tristan gab about their crazy exes. I smile. They are young and have many years to uncover and unpack the heart of love. What are they going to say ten years from now?
During the break my co-teacher hands me a candy heart and 20-year-old JC stops me in my tracks. He has a form of Asperger’s yet he looks me in the eye just to say: “Happy Valentine’s Day, Miss Isa. I think you are my favorite teacher. Now let me give you a hug.”
Today creates moments and they are every shade of special.
During my second class, Media Literacy, a boy hands me a beautiful red rose. “I got you a flower, Miss,” he says shyly. “If you have a boyfriend, please don’t tell him.” He has done this for all his other teachers so I know it’s nothing weird. In another lifetime, I would’ve refused. I would’ve felt undeserving. But it is this one that I live in and in this one, I am profusely grateful.
In class we talk about the dangers of the friend zone, the history of feminism and how objectification ruins women. I see the fire in these teens’ eyes. Renzo, in a sweater that reads: a woman’s place is in the house and the senate (a boy after my own heart), can barely stop himself from speaking out. Jelli, joy personified, tells me later on that she loves this class and I can see why: she dreams of revolutionizing the status quo. They all do: Franco and Ari and Elise and I could go on and on and on. They know what’s wrong. They’re willing to challenge the system. They’re ready to rage against injustice. They are, no doubt, going to change the world.
And that, I think to myself, is love. Real love.
I wouldn’t have thought so ten years ago but now I know it to be true.
Pong, the rose giver, stays after class to ask me a question. We sit down and he suddenly tells me all about his past. He talks about alcoholism. His father’s rejection. How men always think he’s gay because he’s quiet and possesses zero machismo. He is kind and I tell him so.
“Do you think I’m one step closer to finding true love?” he asks me, pleadingly, desperately.
This is the call of every teacher: to move her student towards hope and then, perhaps, truth.
I do not know this boy but I know that he believes in the beauty of a rose. So I tell him what I think.
Why, of course, Pong. Of course.
Later that day I come home to my roommate, Maggie, and her own loot of candies and stories. Our friend-slash-neighbor, Bea, joins us for dinner, bringing a bag of churros. We eat beef stew off of paper plates and laugh and laugh and laugh.
We are all single so we talk about romance and the dream of romance and what Valentine’s might look like with someone — a man — to share it with. It’s a few moments of this, pondering on the elusiveness of love, ’til we eventually move on to our bodies. We are almost 30. We are slower, fatter, closer to physical decay. We make plans to fight against it all, to not let our slow metabolisms have the final say.
The day is almost over. Twenty minutes and it’s done. Here’s what I’m thinking: there is a love that starts and ends with us.
Ten years from now I want to look back on today and see that I was in love, so in love, not as one would typically define it, but in love — fully, deeply, truly; just drowning in the expanse of it — nonetheless.