Frankly, they’re a little fed up with the way we talk about love and all the drama and nonsense around Valentine’s Day.
“A bunch of hearts and flowers and ‘Will you be my boo?’ stickers everywhere?” said Nande Pilgrim, who is exasperated with adults this time of year. “That’s not what it’s all about.”
Nande is 12. And she is part of a small panel of D.C. middle-schoolers I’ve assembled to school us on the meaning of love.
Because it’s in those awkward, lanky tween years of middle school that we often define love and carry that definition into our adult lives.
And all too frequently that definition involves a Jake Ryan-like character pulling up to your house in his red Porsche 944. Sorry, not real life. Get the pint of Ben & Jerry’s; love is lost.
“Love can never be about one person,” said Ihechikaragene “Chika” Munonye, who is 11. “It is about your friends, your family, anyone close to you. That’s who you should think about on Valentine’s Day.”
Chika said adults should consider celebrating the way her friends in sixth grade at Center City Public Charter School celebrate — with a day to uplift and honor each other, take stock of everyone you love.
And here’s why these kids are the right ones to tell us about love.
Each of them had to write a love poem. Ick, right?
But then — get this — they had to read the poem out loud. On stage. In front of an audience.
It’s part of the after-school program Higher Achievement, which has held its Love Out Loud poetry readings on stages as big as the Kennedy Center. This is the 11th year.
The folks who run Higher Achievement — a program that has been around for 40 years and focuses only on middle-schoolers — find that when students have to declare their love on stage, they end up spending a lot of time thinking about what love really means.
For Jackson Frame, 13, love isn’t about the Valentine’s Day stuff that everyone around him is getting all goo-goo about at Alice Deal Middle School.
He says love is about something that brings you comfort and happiness.
“Rap can be a nice smooth walk down the street, slow and calming,” his love poem to rap music said.
“Rap? Seriously, Jackson?” I asked.
“Rap music has a lot of parallels to my life; it helps me relate and understand what’s happening — it brings me happiness,” Jackson explained. “It’s kind of what being in love is.”
Some of the boys play it a little safe and go this route, said Jackie Ross, spokeswoman for Higher Achievement.
There have been love poems to video games. To cheese. To mac-and-cheese.
And, yes, those are usually from the boys.
“Some of the poems are really profound,” Ross said. “And, yes, then you get something like video games and remember that they’re sixth-graders.”
But Jackson said these are still important feelings, that finding passion about something is much like finding love.
And sometimes, those feelings evolve.
A love poem to football was the one that Shelvia Motirayo’s son wrote his first year in the Higher Achievement program.
But the next year, he delivered a piece full of emotion and courage. That time, he stood up in front of all his peers — even the football guys — to declare his love for his mom.
Asha Brooks, Motirayo’s other child, is reading her love poem aloud this year.
Asha is 10 and for her, love is a “mushy little feeling you get inside” when your parents kiss you and make you smile, or “showing your pride” when you make a touchdown, a goal or a strike.
The fifth-grader at Washington Latin Public Charter School has one request in the last line of her poem:
“Before we go/I want to let you know/to show your love to/someone today!”
Maricarmen Ortiz, 12, confessed that lessons in love are less complicated in the seventh grade at Center City. “So many people talk about love, like loving objects, we don’t really stop to think about loving other people,” she said.
If Nande could redecorate Valentine’s Day, it would have lots of different colors, not just red and pink. And cards would be for friends and family, not just your bae.
Her love poem this year is a tough one: “A huge chunk of my heart is now floating somewhere, I can’t see, reach or find it.”
“It’s not all about boyfriends,” the seventh-grader at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School said. This one is about her dad, who died five months ago after a battle with Stage 4 lung cancer.
So on Valentine’s Day, she wants all the people pining for loves who don’t love back and all the people brooding over love they don’t think is good enough or perfect enough to stop and look around them.
“All that talk is boring,” she said. “Love is about relationships, what you love to do, what you love to talk about. Your family.
“I loved my father, and when he passed away, I didn’t want to talk about those feelings,” Nande said. “Those feelings were love.”
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