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Published February 11, 2020


My introduction to Valentine’s Day in 1968

By John Toth / The Bulletin

When my fifth-grade classmates exchanged Valentine’s Day cards in 1968, I had no idea what they were doing or why. I landed in the United States five months earlier and was not up to speed on these things.

I watched from my seat as the classroom buzzed with excitement. Europeans didn’t celebrate Valentine’s Day on Feb. 14. If some did, I missed it while country hopping in search of a new home.

I felt left out during the Valentine’s celebration, but that was O.K. I got used to that as I learned the different customs in my new home.

I was on the outside looking in for a while. It had happened in Vienna, Austria also. By the time I got to be good at following the local traditions, we packed our bags and headed to the U.S.A., where I started the same process all over again.

I was familiar with all the major events like Christmas, New Year’s and Easter. Those were the same everywhere. I had yet to find out about the Fourth of July. It hadn’t happened yet.

I was a 12-year-old kid trying to fit in as I learned a new language. I knew German, which is somewhat similar to English, and was on the fast track to understanding what was being said around me.

But on Wednesday, Feb. 14, 1968, this Valentine’s Day card-exchange thing was French to me.

On the way home, Diane, the girl who sat behind me in class, caught up with me as I was walking home. I lived three blocks from the school on the fifth floor of a brownstone tenement with no elevator. It was a short walk, but a long climb.

Diane noticed that I was out of the loop during the classroom card-exchange and asked why I didn’t give out any.

“I didn’t know I was supposed to. I’ll do it next year,” I explained in very broken English.

We walked slowly as she asked me some questions about Europe and how I got here. I answered them the best I could. It took a while.

She lived a few blocks from my apartment house, so I took a detour and walked her home. Her apartments were a lot nicer – modern with a doorman and elevators. I was impressed.

She reached into her backpack and pulled out a Valentine card with my name on it. “You can have this if you do my math homework,” she said.

We sat down on a bench outside, and I finished her homework in about five minutes. Until I conquered the language barrier, my claim to fame was being good at math. That was also the same everywhere, and in Europe, somewhat more advanced than here in the fifth grade. At least, that’s what I experienced.

The card is long-gone, but the memories of that day remain. Why did she give it to me after school? Maybe it would have been awkward to do it in class, when I was sitting like a lump on a log, trying to find out what all this was all about.

Or, maybe because she was having trouble in math. What was important to me was that I started to belong somwehat, and I had a confidant helping me.

When I raised my hand one time and answered a science question, but used the word Celsius rather than Centigrade, the kids in the class laughed. The teacher said it was correct, and that shut them down.

Diane didn’t laugh. And, she started getting better grades in math. That was a fair trade – math tutoring in exchange for English tutoring, and a Valentine’s Day card on top of that. Then she moved, changed schools, and I lost contact and a good friend.

Wherever Diane is, I hope she has a big family with lots of grandkids who are as kind and accepting as she was. And, I hope they all have a good math tutor.

(John looks forward to hearing from you on this subject. Send me a note at john.bulletin@gmail.com. You can even send an old-fashioned letter to: The Bulletin, P.O. Box 2426, Angleton, TX. 77516.)