My dad was the school superintendent in the village where we grew up. His office was in the junior high school, which was both convenient and mortifying for me, in turns. Convenient because he’d carry my baritone saxophone into school on the mornings I had jazz band. Mortifying because if I got in trouble for talking in study hall, he knew before lunchtime. But something else happened in those junior high years, too — something I didn’t figure out until I had grown into a less gawky, slightly less nerdy high school girl. My dad was my secret admirer.
The student council at my junior high school had renamed Valentine’s Day “Carnation Day.” In the weeks leading up to it, you could pay a dollar to send a carnation to the person of your choice, and it would be left on his or her desk before homeroom that morning. The result was a very colorful and extraordinarily visible display of relative popularity. There were some kids who walked in and sat down at empty desks every Valentine’s Day morning. It’s a wonder they kept showing up. There were other kids whose desks were so laden with flowers there was no room for a pencil.
It was a great source of angst. I worried. But I didn’t have to. In my three years of junior high school, my desk was never without a carnation on Valentine’s Day. Some years, there was more than one. But always, there was one.
The card was either signed “from a secret admirer” or not signed at all. My friends thought it made me seem exotic and mysterious. I think it was freshman year when I figured it out. Every year, he heard the announcements and made the walk from district offices at one end of the building to the cafeteria at the other end to order my flower.
When we were growing up, my dad wasn’t always what you’d call the warm, fuzzy type. He was busy sometimes. He was very organized. And he was strict. But something happens to fathers when you have children of your own. They turn from Dads to Papas, who have unlimited time for fishing and believe in candy before dinner.
Looking back, though, there were always hints of Papa, even on Dad’s busiest days. I still have a dried junior high school carnation in my attic as proof.