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My first Valentine in the U.S.

By John Toth

The Bulletin

In fifth grade, when my classmates exchanged Valentine’s cards, I had no idea that it was a tradition here.

 I didn’t buy or prepare any to give out. It was five months after I landed in the United States.

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

I felt left out during the Valentine’s celebration, but that was O.K. I got used to that. I was learning different customs in my new home - like Halloween, when kids stopped strangers on the street, asking them for candy. (It was 1967 and was still safe to do that.)

I was on the outside looking in for a while. It happened in Vienna, Austria, also. By the time I became good at following the local traditions, we packed our bags and headed for 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, so I was on a 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 and with a doorman and elevators.

She reached into her backpack and pulled out a Valentines 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. In Europe, fifth-grade math was somewhat more advanced than here, at least, that’s what I experienced.

The card is long-gone, but the memories remain.

Why did she give it to me after school? Maybe she was too shy. She didn’t see anyone else giving me a card, and I didn’t give out any, either. Maybe because she was having trouble in math and needed help. What was important to me was that I started to belong, and I had a confidant helping me.

When I raised my hand one time and answered a question correctly but used the word Celsius rather than Centigrade, the kids in the class laughed. The teacher said it was correct. The laughter stopped.

Diane didn’t laugh. And she started getting better grades in math - math  tutoring in exchange for English tutoring, and a Valentines Day card.

Then her parents got divorced, she moved, changed schools, and I lost a friend.

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


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