It snows often in Happy Valley. Rarely enough to amount to anything, but just enough to look pretty (and, sometimes, be annoying). My sophomore year at Penn State, however, St. Valentine gave us work-weary students a blessed gift: the one and only snow day I can remember during my four years of undergrad. Yes, classes were cancelled on Valentine’s Day!
I was unattached at the time, and laced up my snow boots to set out for one of my favorite spots on campus: the library. The walk was beautiful, filled with that peaceful silence that only snow can offer, and I arrived clear-headed, calm, and ready to hunker down with my books all afternoon. A few hours later, completely absorbed in my studies, I didn’t even notice the shadow looming over my notes until it spoke.
“Hey. Christina, right?”
I looked up, startled to find that I had company at my table. I struggled for a minute to place him – where had I seen this guy before? Aha! Last week at a meeting for that club I just joined.
A shy smile and a nod. I’d gotten it right. A few minutes of awkward small talk later, I packed up my things and excused myself to have dinner with a friend. Back to class the next day, life as usual, blah blah blah.
Two days later, however, I came home to an embarrassing display of flowers. My roommate, perched at the edge of her bed, quite literally almost pounced when I walked in. “So… who sent you those???” She didn’t believe me when I said I didn’t know. But the card attached only contained a short, generic, “Be Mine” Valentine-type message, signed simply by “J”, and I was stumped. Until that night, when I received an instant message from a screen name I didn’t recognize. Asking if I liked my surprise. Huh?
It was my roommate who finally put together that this mystery guy was Jack. Whom I’d met only twice and certainly hadn’t shared my address nor my screen name with. Upon making this discovery, my roommate gushed that it was “just the cutest, most sweetest thing ever” and “why can’t I meet someone romantic like that?” I, on the other hand, was officially creeped out.
Jack turned out to be a nice guy with some seriously misguided notions about dating. I only know that because I continued my involvement with that club, not because I dated him. It went against every fiber of my people-pleasing being to turn him down – more than once over the years – and to trust my gut over the much louder sounds of disappointment from several friends who thought I should give him a chance “because it was Valentine’s Day,” and “he went to all that trouble to make me feel special.” But I’m glad I did. I always think about Jack at this time of year, not only because of the holiday but also because February is Teen Dating Violence Awareness Month.
Now in my sixth year with The Prevention Project of A Woman’s Place (AWP), I have visited hundreds of classrooms, youth groups, and clubs in Bucks County, met countless “Jacks” and even some “Jills.” As one high school freshman recently put it, it’s not easy trying to sort out “all our different feelings and thoughts of what a relationship is supposed to look like.” Guys and girls alike get caught up in the myth that relationships are “supposed to” be built on jealousy and possessiveness, on power and control, and many believe that a bad relationship is better than no relationship at all.
The top three concerns I hear from students about dating in middle and high school are:
- Peer pressure and the pressure to “do what society expects”
- Jealousy and over-protectiveness, such as being told that it’s really nice or even romantic that a partner is possessive and always checking on them (via non-stop texting, for example), taking the phrase “be mine” too literally.
- Being desperate to get a relationship just to fit in.
Which is why I’m grateful that about 3,000 middle and high school students each year have the opportunity to learn about healthy relationships with AWP. And after we deliver presentations, I hear things like:
- I already knew a lot of this information but thank you for confirming what I always thought was right, and encouraging me to trust my instincts.
- I never knew the difference between a warning sign, like jealousy, and love.
- Thank you for teaching us about what’s healthy and what’s not – I didn’t realize I was being controlling. I just thought I was being a good partner.
It gives me hope to hear these things, and to know that, each year, 3,000 more advocates are being trained not only to recognize the warning signs of an unhealthy relationship in their own and their friends’ relationships, but also to recognize the makings of a good partner – and, perhaps most importantly, how to be that kind of partner.
Director of The Prevention Project