The year was 1982, or maybe 1983, and at Johnson Elementary School, every Valentine’s day brought a carnation exchange. This was the brainchild of an enterprising PTA parent. The proceeds, which benefited the PTA, came from the sale of single carnations, which were delivered to children all throughout the day for a small sum. In the week leading up to Valentine’s Day, kids lined up to purchase carnations for their classmates. The clever designer of this exchange also built in an up-charge for color, where a white carnation cost the least, followed by yellow, then pink, then red. (Anyone else remember this?)
For another small fee, the recipient of a carnation could then come up to the carnation table at lunch and discover the sender of their carnation. As you might guess, as much money came from those paying to learn who their secret admirer might be as from the original sale of the flower. And there was only one way to ensure anonymity…pay a fee when you purchase the carnation to keep your sender status a secret.
Gaggles of girls giggled as they anonymously sent carnations to boys, and boys bullishly fired off carnations to their true love(s). Then there also was the “arranged friend swap” where good friends would simply pre-discuss the exchange of the carnation – color and all – to ensure delivery to one another. Because carnations equaled popularity. The more you got, the cooler you were. And if you got a red one, well…that was immediate rock star status.
Valentine’s Day was a popular kid’s dream at Johnson Elementary; a day of carnation affirmation, as the “in” kids went from class to class, looking surprised as flowers piled up on their desks, carrying fistfuls of declarations of like and love through the halls of school.
As you could probably guess, this wasn’t such a good day for the misfits and the kids who weren’t winning the love, or even the like, of others. These were the kids who’d come off the bus empty-handed.
But one kid’s plan would change all that.
That kid was my brother, and what he was about to do would turn Johnson Elementary upside down for just one day.
Unbeknownst to anyone else, my brother went to his piggy bank and took out enough change to send carnations – multiple carnations – to the kids on the fringe. He thought about which classmates would sit all day, longing for the next delivery to be theirs, and leave disappointed and feeling dejected. And he did something about it.
He bought them carnations. Not just any old white carnations – nope, he sprung for red. And he ante’d up the extra, so these kids would never know who their admirer might be. (I think he was in the second grade that year, and I’m pretty sure, as I think about it, this sort of selfless love and concern for others is one example of why Jesus tells us to become like little children.)
As carnation after carnation was delivered that day, everyone thought it must be a mistake, but the PTA lady reassured the kids, one after another, that they were indeed the recipients. At lunch, they lined up to pay the small sum to discover who sent these carnations…but much to their dismay (and their sheer delight), it was a SECRET.
I’m gonna guess this was a banner day for most of these kids. There is something about carrying around unexpected red carnations that delights the soul.
I still remember my brother’s excitement on the evening of the carnation delivery. At dinner, he unfolded the details of that day like a napkin, trusting only my mom, dad and me with what he’d done, and recounted the looks on the faces of those kids who never thought they’d get a carnation. My brother glowed as much as the kids he described. We listened to his story, in awe of his ability to think this up all on his own.
My brother’s Valentine kindness made an indelible mark on me. In recent years I’ve turned the carnation exchange over repeatedly in my mind. I relish my insider-status (even if it was after the fact), relive the details, remember those kids, and still smile when I consider what my brother did that year.
So, here’s the carnation challenge:
I wonder, if you think about it for a moment, who God might have put in your circle this year that you might impact with an unexpected “carnation”? Would you do something for someone who would otherwise feel like they were on the outside looking in this Valentine’s Day? Here are a few candidates to consider:* A widow or widower who will spend their first Valentine’s Day alone * A friend who is going through the pain of divorce this year * A single neighbor * Someone who simply needs a friend right now
It doesn’t have to be anything big. A card, a note, a carnation…all of these could be the love of Christ to someone who feels alone this February 14th.
Here’s the thing about God: He calls us to action. He calls us to be His hands and feet. Taking that charge to heart blesses us as much, if not more, than the recipients of our action. Join me in the carnation challenge this year…and send me your stories. I’d love to highlight a few in the week to come.