After receiving scores of Presidents Day sale flyers in my mailbox, I’m flashing back to childhood celebrations of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington’s birthdays. Keep in mind we didn’t combine birthdays fifty years ago. We turned February into one long party. We feted Lincoln on February 12 and then Washington on the 22nd. When you added in a Valentine party, February was a festive month for elementary students during Eisenhower and Kennedy’s terms.
Due, I’m sure, to Lincoln’s distinctive features, my classmates and I cut our 16th president’s side view out of black construction paper every year. I recall the rhythmic sound of the teacher stapling these on a white bulletin board. Along with creating our annual artwork, we heard the story about Abe’s difficulties attending school. That tale made me grateful my classroom was a short walk from home.
February 14 distracted us momentarily from our patriotic lessons. Twenty or more of Abe’s silhouettes served to backdrop an equal number of red wrapped shoeboxes, decorated with crudely cut out hearts and lacy doilies. Candy and cookie-fueled primary students stuffed cutesy Valentines into those narrowly slit containers. Those who could wait hauled their loot home and spent the evening tearing open teeny-tiny envelopes to sound out sentimental sayings.
Recovered from our sugar high, we spent the next eight days practicing for the Father of our Nation, George Washington’s birthday blowout. This extravaganza involved cutting out construction paper hatchets and cherries and young children waving American flags of varying sizes in a pageant directed by the most commanding teacher in the school.
I loved the hours of preparation that led up to these events. After pinning our hatchets and red fruits to stage curtains, dozens of scrappy grade-schoolers practiced marching in wide circles either to a John Philip Sousa selection or to “Yankee Doodle.” After we perfected parading until we could do it without a teacher’s intervention, we’d learn flag care rules.
Our teachers drilled into our flighty brains that Old Glory must never touch the ground. They emphasized treating the red, white, and blue with respect. Once our rarely focused gazes acknowledged this solemn responsibility, an adult would hand each of us a handkerchief -sized American flag attached to a wooden dowel. I don’t recall classmates poking or stabbing anyone with these handy weapons. During those post WW II and Korean Conflict years, even little kids knew the American flag was more than a piece of fabric.
My greatest sorrow in grade school occurred during second grade. Mrs. Hill picked me to lead the flag procession that began the celebration, something I liked even more than receiving Valentines stuffed with extra lollipops. Unfortunately, two days before my starring role took place, I awoke with a temperature and swollen jowls. Those were the days before vaccinations, and I had the mumps.
While I sat at home examining a paper bag filled with red candy cherries my parents bought me to celebrate George Washington’s birthday, one of my classmates led the procession onto the stage. To this day, when I see red jelly balls in the candy bin at Orscheln’s, I remember the buckets of tears I cried at missing my moment in the spotlight.