Author, ad guy (and sporadic TV blabbermouth) Mark St. Amant weighs in on one New Jersey school’s Valentine’s Day rules.
Some of you may know that, due to writing two sports books and a few columns some years back, I’m still occasionally asked to appear on TV shows. You know, as one of those annoying “talking head, rent-an-opinion” types.
I’m usually invited on last minute, which is probably just a byproduct of the nutso, 24-hour news cycle – “hot” stories trending and un-trending by the second; producers’ running around with their heads on fire; hosts’ mercurial topic preferences; guests flaking out and canceling; et cetera. Or, more likely, they call me because their first dozen choices declined and they found my email scrawled above one of their urinals. But who cares, I’m just happy to be asked.
It usually works like so: the harried, hardworking producer of a particular show will email late afternoon or early evening, tell me the topic for a segment, ask what my side/argument would be — even though they’re already pre-fabricating the “Jane you ignorant slut!”-esque debates that are all the rage these days and know exactly how they want the segment to play out — and boom, I’m suddenly booked for a televised spot early the very next morning. And I’m talkin’ dairy farmer-early. I’m based in Boulder, Colorado – that’s “Mountain Standard Time” for all you time zone nerds — and the shows are typically in New York. Meaning I have to drag my ass out of bed at about 3:00 a.m., get down to, say, the FOX station in Denver by 3:45 a.m., and be on-air live/lucid/not looking too much like a Faces of Meth “after” picture at 4:15 a.m. MST/6:15 a.m. EST.
They plop me on a stool in front of a faux city skyline, jam an earpiece into my skull, run a clip-on mic up my shirt (hee-hee, that’s tickly), the red camera light illuminates, the spunky hosts start chattering in my ear, and I then try my damndest – without cheat sheets or note cards or prompters — to follow along, add something coherent when it’s my turn, and basically not go Cindy Brady-level catatonic. The segments are usually four to five minutes, but feel like ten seconds. After which the sleepy production assistant unhooks me, mutters something like, “Thanks, you were great” (even if I was awful), and that’s that. In the blink of an eye I’m back in a car to Boulder with a full workday ahead, something I’ll survive only by mainlining espresso.
But despite the insane time of day (or night), I always really like doing these segments. Ninety-nine-percent of the time, I’ll eagerly/thankfully accept the kind invites, mainly because (A) as an author of roughly zero acclaim, you can never get enough publicity, and (B) I always have fun and try not to take the topics as seriously as the hosts are taking them. Sometimes this approach goes over well, I get a few laughs and nods, and it’s generally a success; sometimes, due to their forced laughs or tight smiles, I can tell they don’t really appreciate my “a little too casual” attitude. But all in all, doing TV is usually fun and I get to talk to/meet interesting people from all over the country, and maybe make a salient point or two on something that interests me. So I’m always game. Except when I’m not . . .which happened for the first and only time this past Wednesday when I declined a chance to weigh in on a subject you’re probably already QUITE sick of this Friday, February 14th: Valentine’s Day.
It began with an email on Wednesday from a producer for the top-rated cable talk show in this great land, “FOX & Friends”, which draws two million viewers daily. I was no stranger to F&F, having done a couple past segments, usually to discuss some youth-sports-related rules that school systems and leagues around the country have been enacting. No balls at recess due to safety and “over-competitiveness” concerns. Firing and fining (volunteer) coaches for “running up the score” on their hapless opponents. All that “Everyone gets a trophy”, self-esteem-gone-wild stuff that, in most cases, I’m not in favor of because, in my view, it essentially bubble wraps our kids against the realities of life: namely, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. And, to me, it’s how you respond to adversity and get back up after being knocked down that builds character. A “win” that’s handed to you out of pity isn’t really a win. Yada yada, right? You might agree. You might not. But point is, I’ve been an occasional go-to “sports guy” for them, and one who typically doesn’t fall into the “hyper-touchy-feely” category when it comes to our kids.
So on Wednesday they asked me to represent one “side” of a segment they’d be doing the following morning on this polarizing Valentine’s Day-related story out of New Jersey: kindergarten teachers sent a letter home to parents reminding them that if their kids are bringing Valentine’s cards to school, EVERY CHILD IN THE CLASS must receive one. “If your child chooses to exchange Valentine cards in school,” the letter read, “he or she should have one for each classmate. This will avoid hurt feelings.”
So, what did I think? I was about to respond that I thought it was perfectly fine. No kid that age should be made to feel un-liked. There was a big difference between dolling out “Pity Wins” on a youth sports field and handing out so-called “Pity Valentine’s”. And I didn’t understand the uproar from such high-profile folks as Opie (from the “Opie & Anthony” radio show) who called it “pathetic, everyone gets a trophy BS“. But the producer beat me to the punch and said they already had someone booked for the PRO side of this argument — i.e. that this is a great, progressive idea because it teaches kids to be kind to one another, that no one should be excluded, no one’s feelings should be hurt, etc.. In other words, based on my past (sports-related) opinions, they assumed I’d be willing to come on, agree with a grown human male named “Opie”, and rail against this as yet another example of political correctness gone berserk. And for a moment, I admittedly thought, “Okay, FOX & Friends is a popular show. They’ve always been super nice and fun in the past and, in my experience anyway, have never made things overly ‘political’. And if it helps me sell even one more book this month – versus the NONE-per-month pace I’m currently on — it’ll be worth it.” So I could probably drum up some fabricated argument against these teachers’ Valentine’s-for-all mandate if it meant another quick spot on national TV, right?
Wrong. I couldn’t. Because it was the polar opposite of what I truly felt and believed. I couldn’t honestly look that camera and faceless audience in the eye – or look my own young kids in the eyes later that morning – and argue that I was AGAINST this Valentine’s card rule. Dammit, I wanted to be on the PRO side!
Why? Well, for starters, THEY’RE SIX-YEAR-OLDS. Little kids who have plennnnnty of time to experience soul-crushing, heartbreaking rejection, namely in middle school or high school, a.k.a. Hormonal Thunderdome. We’ve all been there, and we all know that Cockpid – Cupid’s more heartless and vindictive asshole of a twin brother – eventually finds all of us at some point, bats away Cupid’s arrows like Dikembe Mutombo and dashes our romantic aspirations. So why not let these just-out-of-pre-schoolers be happy and innocent for a while longer, ya know? They grow up fast enough. Why rush them into the harsh reality that there will be some people who JUST DON’T LIKE YOU? Kids are cannibalistic enough without providing them a public, school-sanctioned forum in which to be even more cruel whether it’s intentional or not. Kids aren’t dumb. They know when they’re getting attention and when they’re being kicked to the curb. And if my daughter or son came home sobbing because they were the only ones who didn’t get Valentine’s cards, I’d be absolutely gutted. Any half-decent parent would. So for me to argue that this is perfectly okay and the “losers” should just suck it up and learn life’s hard lessons early, well, that would be hypocritical at best, certifiable at worst.
Next, there’s a big difference between teaching kids that there’s winning and losing in life – “Sorry, but everyone DOESN’T get a trophy” — and teaching them to be mean or dismissive of others who are different. And a classroom where some kids get Valentine’s Cards – instant, public validation of their popularity/acceptance – and some don’t is just an incubator for arbitrary prejudice, whether that’s against overweight kids, quiet kids, darker kids, too-smart kids, kids with glasses, kids with birthmarks on their necks, red-haired kids, kids with “funny names”, shy kids, kids who stutter, kids who smell like old SpaghettiO’s, any type of kid who stands out in some way as NOT LIKE US. After all, again, these are kindergarteners to whom (you’d hope!) being mean shouldn’t come too easily or naturally – or worse, eagerly. So why help them get them started too early by forcing the issue of “Who do you like best, little Sally or Johnny, and who doesn’t deserve your attention/affection/basic human kindness?” via some Valentine’s Day card massacre?
Now, for those who might say it’s hypocritical of me to have always been so publicly against forced sports egalitarianism yet be FOR “Everyone gets a Valentine’s card”, I blatantly steal a quote from my friend CJ Kaplan (who also writes for this site from time to time) after I asked for some opinions on Facebook: “The Trophy Thing and The Valentine Thing are two different issues. Believing that not everyone should get a trophy, but that everyone in kindergarten should get a Valentine, does not make you a hypocrite. Here’s why: When you don’t get a trophy, you get over it in about an hour (or faster, depending on how long it takes to get to the local ice cream place). But when you don’t get a Valentine, you have to go back to that classroom every day until June and face the same classmates who didn’t think enough of you to get you a crappy 10-cent card. That’s a real drag when you’re five. Nobody needs a trophy. But, everybody needs to feel loved. Mark, you should’ve gone on [FOX] and taken up the PRO argument just to screw them.”
Well put, CJ. And, honestly, at the 11th hour, I almost did try to sneak on the show under the guise of being on the AGAINST side. I almost did want to accept the invite by saying, “Sure, I’ll go on and rail against the bleeding hearts who are undoubtedly behind such a vile, ‘Pity Valentine’-dispensing rule!” and – yoink! – suddenly pulling a 180 with a second PRO-VALENTINE opinion. But then I thought I could do one better. I could go on and spew the following pretzel logic craziness just to see how they responded:
“I am vehemently against everyone getting Valentine’s cards. Because if everyone gets a Valentine, theoretically every kid will be popular. And if every kid is popular, there will be no outcasts. And if there are no outcasts, who’s going to overcome childhood social angst to grow up and be our most respected, beloved, renowned, creative thinkers, innovators & visionaries? You think people like Steve Jobs, Sergey Brin, Tina Fey, Elon Musk, or J.K. Rowling had wheelbarrows of Valentine’s cards dumped onto their desks every year? No! They were probably marginalized, put down, beaten up, and forced into the shadows of their own minds…where great things awaited. Without the outcasts, the fatties, the uggos, the dorks, the nerds, the lonely, the pathetic, and the weirdos, who’ll keep the future world interesting? Who’ll grow up to invent our iPhones, our electric cars, our Facebooks, and our Googles? Who’s gonna write our best TV shows, books, songs, and movies? For the love of Louis C.K., WHO’LL BE OUR BEST SELF-LOATHING COMEDIANS?!? The lazy, entitled, mean-spirited, good-looking, gutless, navel-gazing, popular kids, the ones who held an iron-clad monopoly on Valentine’s card distribution? Not a chance. Popular kids have no demons to exorcise. Popular kids have never had to improvise, adapt, or overcome. They just…coast. Which leads us to two conclusions: (A) Never underestimate marginalization and social revenge as kindling for great revolution, and (B) The greatest creation in a world fueled entirely by grown-up popular kids would, at best, be Abercrombie & Fitch.”
Or some such tongue-in-cheek (yet also totally serious) tirade, anyway. Which I can only imagine would have been met with either blank stares from Elisabeth Hasselbeck and my debate “opponent” or the sudden, on-screen appearance of “technical difficulties” test pattern.
So after I’d originally decided to pass, with my new covert, sneak-attack, double-agent plan in mind, I emailed the producer back and asked if she’d found someone to represent the AGAINST side. And she had. Dammit! My stealth rant against popular kids being handed yet another opportunity to marginalize their outcast peers would have to wait until my next TV appearance.