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Roses are red, but they make schools blue

It was the rain forest of roses in Gary Foltz's front office that finally pushed him over the edge. The principal at Citrus High School in Inverness, Fla., decided he'd seen enough when the valentine vegetation started cascading off tables and filling every nook and credenza. Finally, the secretaries were forced to stash bouquets in closets.

Mr. Foltz says the school was getting 400 to 600 Valentine's Day deliveries. So last year he became a cupid curmudgeon: He banned flower deliveries in the weeks before and after the big day.

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He's not alone.

While it's hardly in their job description, principals around the US are taking a zero-tolerance stand on the unusual problem of high-profile expressions of devotion. Anticipating an avalanche of roses and chocolates - and in one case, the need to hire extra personnel to deal with all the packages - a growing number of schools from Washington State to Florida are banning Valentine's Day deliveries.

"It just takes the focus off what school's all about," says Eric Chester, a Denver-based teen expert. "At one point, kids were sending each other singing telegrams. It got totally obnoxious."

At Citrus High, Valentine's Day used to mean simply a rose between sweethearts. But a prolonged period of prosperity has pushed that humble tradition aside. Now, a dozen long-stems and a grip of Mylar balloons are simply a good starting point.

Bans on deliveries of all kinds have become more commonplace among America's large high schools, many of which have set up special clubs to deliver the cards and flowers instead. But even smaller schools around the nation are beginning to find out how innocent puppy love can take on St. Bernard proportions.

At the 660-student Harlan Community High School in Harlan, Iowa, gifts filled a room that in more normal times could accommodate the entire student body. "Generally, we'd have our auditorium stage full of balloons and candy and flowers," says Duane Magee, associate principal.

Eventually, it became so disruptive that Valentine's Day deliveries were cut off altogether during the 1998-99 school year.

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But it wasn't just the disruption that prompted the decision. In many schools, officials began worrying about teen competitiveness: Students were assigning ever-larger dollar amounts to love, and causing a lot of one-upmanship.

Valentine's Day does, in fact, cause Americans to open their wallets. According to a recent study by the National Retail Federation, the average male shopper will spend $40 on Valentine's Day, while women plan to spend $20. The most popular gift: greeting cards, followed by a night on the town. The International Mass Retail Association puts the figure even higher: It estimates the average Valentine's shopper will spend $84 - 8 percent more than last year.

At Citrus High, Foltz says some students were spending between $50 and $75 on their significant others and having a tough time keeping up with the competition.

In Harlan, it wasn't just guys spending on their girlfriends. Girls were spending wads of cash on other girls.

"You have a group of 12 girls, and they're dropping some serious money on each other," says Mr. Magee.

Both parents and students applauded the decision, expressing relief that love would have to take on more subtle expressions in the future.

"We had a lot of positive comments from students and parents, saying that from a financial standpoint, this is actually nice: It's nice that you guys take the heat and we get to save some money," Magee says.

Of course, that doesn't mean that modesty is necessarily taking root among all teenagers. Timothy Simmons, a ninth-grader at Newman Prep School in downtown Boston, isn't worried about cost. He's got relationship maintenance on his mind.

"We had a little argument," he says of his girlfriend. "I've been getting the silent treatment." He hopes the box of heart-shaped chocolates and cards he bought her - to the tune of $35 - will rekindle the flames.

That seems like pocket change to Greg Gomes, who attends East Boston High School. He says he bought his girlfriend a silver chain and a teddy bear for $210. Conveniently, his parents, who like his girlfriend, funded the gift.

Greg says he doesn't discuss Valentine's Day spending with his friends. He insists it's between just him and his girlfriend: Competitiveness among guys isn't an issue.

Mr. Chester, the teen expert, isn't convinced. He says teens are buying into the message of Hollywood and the media that money can buy you love.

"To express yourself, you need to do it financially, and the more grandiose the better," he says.

The problem, Chester argues, is that when poorer kids can't afford high-ticket items, they are sometimes looked down upon by other students.

"It creates this pressure that everybody's got to ... make it this huge, memorable, once-in- a-lifetime event."

For high schools that are putting a tough-love spin on Valentine's Day, repercussions have been few, principals say.

At Citrus, a few students grumbled, and Foltz caught wind of some clandestine deliveries to students in the parking lot. A few local florists called and complained to Foltz because revenue would be lost. He now sends letters to florists, explaining his decision.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society