Valentine's Day is just around the corner. It always reminds me of Amy Barnhart -- my first love.
Amy was the tallest girl in Mrs. Benson's fourth grade class. Her eyes were big and brown. She clipped colorful barrettes into her kinky red hair and had the most attractive braces you ever did see -- just a thin wire pulling her top teeth back into her head.
She wore white blouses with round collars, buttoned sweaters, dark plaid pleated skirts, knee socks that matched her sweaters, and black-and-white saddle oxfords. Most days she looked like a goalie for a field-hockey team.
She was quiet and covered her mouth when she giggled. She blushed if I looked at her. We never talked. We didn't eat lunch together. My desk wasn't anywhere near hers. We never passed notes. But Amy was my girlfriend and everybody in Mrs. Benson's class knew it.
"Amy wants me to tell you she thinks you're handsome," Sarah Jones said. Sarah was Amy's best friend and our self-appointed go-between. Sarah liked being a go-between.
Early in the second week of my relationship with Amy, Sarah caught me in the coatroom.
"Billy Williams wants to be Amy's boyfriend now. Amy wants to know how you feel about it."
"Okay, I guess." I didn't know what else to say. I'd never had a rival for a girl's affection and I wasn't getting any affection anyway.
"Okay? No Sammy, it's not okay. I can't tell Amy you said it was okay. You're supposed to say you don't like it one bit."
"Okay. I don't like it."
"I knew it," Sarah said, smiling and winking at Amy like she had everything under control. "I knew you'd be mad."
"But I'm not mad."
"Sure you are," Sarah said, frowning like I wasn't following the script.
"You're hopping mad because Billy Williams is trying to snake your girlfriend. You might have to fight him."
"You're gonna have to beat up Billy to make him leave Amy alone."
"Why would I do that?"
"Because it's what you're supposed to do when somebody tries to snake your girlfriend."
"Oh," I said. "But I don't want to fight Billy Williams. He's my friend."
"Are you chicken?" Sarah asked.
"No, I'm not chicken!"
"Well, I think you are and Amy's going to think so, too. I'm going over there right now and tell her you're chicken."
"Can't I do something else?"
"Mercy!" Sarah said, rolling her eyes. "Alright. I'll go ask." She threw her chin into the air, turned briskly on her heels, and headed off to kibbutz with Amy.
I waited most of the day for a reply. Amy wouldn't look at me. Every time I caught Sarah's eye, she shook her head in disgust. My budding relationship with Amy was on the rocks.
At the end of the day, Sarah stopped me in the coatroom again.
"Amy's going to see what you get her for Valentines," Sarah said. "Then she'll decide between you and Billy. Valentine's Day is next Tuesday, Sammy. You better remember and you better get her something good."
On Friday, Mrs. Benson announced a new class rule.
"Class," she said. "Valentine's Day is next Tuesday. You may give your fellow students Valentines cards, but no candies or other gifts. All your cards must be the same. No special cards for some and lesser cards for others. No exceptions. You may write personalized notes on your cards if you like. Any questions?"
The girls booed. We'd never heard such a thing.
Mrs. Benson raised her ruler, rapped the edge of her desk, and barked, "Quiet!" The room went silent.
Mrs. Benson went on, "I've had too many problems with selfish kids who count their cards and lord their gifts over everybody. This makes other kids feel bad. Valentine's Day is about loving one another. Not playing king-of-the-hill."
I'd never thought of Valentine's that way. I thought counting cards was the whole point. How else would a person gauge his popularity? But I wasn't complaining, because Mrs. Benson had made things easy for me. All I had to do -- all I could do -- was get Amy a card and write a nice note on it.
I asked my mother Coco what a boyfriend was supposed to write on a Valentine's card. Coco loved opportunities to instruct me in dealing with the opposite sex. She didn't get many and wasn't squandering this one.
"Sammy, you're not supposed to write anything. No girl wants you to write what you think you're supposed to write. She wants you to write what you feel. Does that make sense?"
It didn't, but I said, "Yes ma'am."
"Girls want you to write what's in your heart and they want to know that you spent some time thinking about what you wrote--something special just for them."
Next day, Coco took me to Doc Cheek's drugstore to get Valentine's cards. Coco picked out the kind that came 25 to a package, said "Happy Valentine's Day" on the front, didn't fold, and didn't have envelopes.
"Shouldn't we get the kind that fold and have envelopes?" I asked.
"Too expensive," Coco said.
"But Coco, these are the cheapo cards. Amy's gonna want a nice card in an envelope."
"Sammy, if you'd like to buy the cards, you can get the big ones with envelopes, but if I'm buying, we're getting these. And remember what we talked about. Girls care about what's in your heart. If you say what's in your heart, the card won't matter. Understand?"
I didn't, but said, "Yes ma'am."
I thought and thought some more about what was in my heart. I wasn't coming up with much, but I had to put something on paper. This is what I wrote:
Will you be my Valentine?
Not very original, but heartfelt. Amy's was the only card I wrote a note on, so it was the most special one.
On Valentine's Day, Mrs. Benson let us walk around the classroom and dole out our cards. Everybody gave out better cards than mine. It was sort of embarrassing, but I remembered what Coco said: girls don't care about the card. They care about the note. I was relying heavily on her say-so. When I got to Amy's desk, Sarah was waiting for me.
"I'll take that," she said, snatching the card out of my hand, looking it over, and rolling her eyes before running to Amy. Every girl in the class stopped to watch.
Amy took the card and read it. She looked at me, but didn't smile or blush. She put the card in her skirt pocket. Sarah glared at me.
That was the end of my relationship with Amy Barnhart.
It wasn't until the next day that Sarah found me on the playground and told me Billy Williams had written a better note. He wrote "I Love You" which, according to Sarah, was way better than "Will You Be My Valentine?"
"And," she said. "Billy's card was one of the big ones. It folded and came in a real envelope. And Mrs. Williams drove Billy over to Amy's house yesterday after school. And Billy gave Amy a Whitman Sampler with a red bow on it. It cost 49 cents."
"How would you know that?" I asked.
"That's what Billy told Amy."
"That's not fair," I said. "Mrs. Benson said..."
"Amy says love conquers all and Billy couldn't help himself. He gave her chocolates because that's what boys are supposed to do on Valentine's. He didn't care if he got in trouble. Amy says that's true love. So now she likes Billy better than you."
"Oh, brother," I said.
Sarah stood staring at me, shaking her head. "Maybe you've learned something from all this," she said. "But I don't think it's gonna do you any good."
"Why not?" I asked.
"Because I've checked around and none of the other girls want you for a boyfriend either. Amy dumped you and now everybody else has, too."
If you'd like to read more of Sam's musings on life, visit his revamped website at HYPERLINK "http://www.sammcleod.net" www.sammcleod.net, or better yet, buy his latest book, BIG APPETITE.