I went to an “all-girls” high school, a version of a convent school, called Our Lady of Peace High School, in St. Paul, Minnesota. The nuns were strict and exacting teachers—many rules, but exciting education! I became a writer in part because of the example of those toughminded nuns: independent, “intellectual,” outspoken. There were no boys around to distract us—we were inspired by the “sisters”—and inspired by Latin, French, Ancient History, the “new” Math, Creative Writing.
On Valentine’s Day, all the rules went out the window and a kind of holiday anarchy took over. We sent valentines to our teachers and our classmates in the form of singing telegrams, called Valegrams. Each Valegram cost a quarter or 50 cents and the money went to some school fund.
A student would purchase a blank yellow telegram-facsimile, with VALEGRAM typed in bright red letters at the top, then choose a melody from a “menu” of tunes, and then she would write her own “lyrics”—a billet-doux, a stupid joke, a sweet greeting—in the appropriate “gram” space (with STOPs). Then members of the Glee Club would take each Valegram, learn the lyrics at warp speed, then zip through the halls, knock on classroom doors, interrupting class (nothing got done on Valentine’s Day) and they (we) would sing the Valegram message to the “addressee.” The classmate to whom the Valegram was addressed would have to stand beside her desk and be “serenaded.” It was both embarrassing and exhilarating—”crushes” were revealed, praises were sung, puns abounded (in Latin and French too!) and romantic love and satire were in the air. The Valegram singers would receive their own “messages”—and would have to stand apart and be serenaded when the singing “gram” was for one of them.
I can’t remember a single line of a Valegram, but I remember the hilarity and wild spontaneity of making up on-the-spot lyrics, smart and smartass words to be sung by those perfect soprano and alto voices: female troubadours run amok. It was February, deep winter in Minnesota, but I remember sunlight on the red printed letters on the yellow paper Valegrams—and I remember those voices singing, I remember standing up by my desk and laughing: It was Valentine’s Day and someone had sent me a singing message, which I would return, again and again and again.