THE FIRST Valentine's Day card I ever handed out was to a 9-year-old girl named Fern Hoffman. I made it myself with paper, glue and crayons. Nobody at school had ever heard of Hallmark, and the labor we put into the card was what made the love.
In those days, and I'm not pinpointing what days they were, you presented the card, unsigned. No one had any idea who gave it. It was theguessing that caused the blood to boil.
I understand that the present generation does not observe the anonymity ritual. As one 11-year-old explained it to me the other day, "Cards cost so much that you want to make sure the person you're giving it to knows where it came from."
Back to Fern. The distribution of the Valentine cards in Mrs. Egorkin's class was as follows: We brought them in and put them on her desk. Most people carried several -- a few came empty-handed. I always wondered if the ones who came empty-handed ever found anyone to put suntan lotion on them when they grew up.
In our world, volume was everything. The more cards you received, the better your chance of success in real life. I believed this at the time, but I am not so sure now. The most popular boy in the class, Roy Bellman, averaged 11 cards a Valentine's Day and was our role model. When he grew up I heard that he had been married four times. One might wonder if too many Valentine cards in his youth had caused his downfall.
So the cards were spread out on the desk and Mrs. Egorkin acted as mail person, calling out each name with care. It should be remembered that in those days life was unfair, unlike today when everyone in the class gets the same number of Valentines. Back then, you got what you deserved.
Some kids were handed two by Mrs. Egorkin, others 12. The trick was to pretend that you didn't care whether you got any or not. I was good at this, and only those who saw me tear up little scraps of paper around my seat had any idea that I had more than a passing interest in this pagan ceremony.
Fern, as you might have guessed, received anywhere from 10 to 15 cards. When I saw her get mine, I waited expectantly for her to open it. She didn't. When you are as rich in cards as she was, you could take all afternoon opening them and never be finished. My only hope was that when she opened the card at home she'd see that it had my name all over it.
Then something weird happened. Mrs. Egorkin called my name. Someone had sent me a Valentine's Day card. It was hard to believe. I took it back to my seat and stared at it. I turned it over and over. It was addressed to me, but when you're 9 years old a lot of mistakes can occur. I finally opened it and found lipstick smudged on it. Whoever sent this card was serious.
Fern never did open my card, but just as class let out, a girl ## named Audrey Zoeller came up to me and said, "Did you get my smudge?" I mumbled something about it being OK, but in my heart I thought, "How can I respect anybody who would send me a Valentine's card? Don't they have any taste in boys at all?"
I don't know where Fern is today, or if she ever found out who sent her the great card. I would like to believe that she puts it on her mantle every Valentine's Day.
As for Audrey, I no longer hold it against her for sending me a card. The girl was too young to know what she was doing.