You have to start somewhere, so I’ll start here.
There was a guy in my elementary school named Lee W. (I’m leaving out his last name in case he’s out of prison – which is where he was in the last gossip I heard about him – oh, 30 years ago). Lee had “failed” a couple of grades, so by the time we were in the sixth grade (the last year of elementary school in those more innocent times) he was about 13 or 14…or 15. He was huge to the rest of us 6th graders – both physically and psychically.
I attended one of those old schools made of red brick that had huge windows that the teacher had to climb up on a stool to close. Those windows had ledges – and Lee would climb up on one of those ledges while the teacher was writing on the blackboard then leap out the window into the shrubbery below (usually a drop of 4-6 feet) and head off for the neighborhood store down the street where he would “buy” pockets full of candy. He would then come back to school and by guerrilla tactics make his way back to class.
Sometimes the teacher would notice he’d gone and he’d get into trouble. Sometimes she wouldn’t notice. Those times made him loom large in Burton Grove School myth. Lee was not, shall we say, socially adept. His specialties ran more to larceny and occasional mayhem to school furniture when the teacher tried to make him read in front of the class. He rarely, actually, never to my knowledge, participated in rituals like the Christmas gift exchange. Nor did he take an interest in the classroom Easter egg hunt. Bonding with classmates during holiday frivolity was not Lee’s cup of tea.
Except for Valentine’s Day. Actually Valentine’s Day when we were in 6th grade and Lee was…inspired, one might say.
Lee, for whatever reason (puberty, perhaps, given his age) took an active interest in that Valentine’s Day 1964. In those days everyone in class exchanged valentines with everyone else. In those simpler times – before saturation marketing and Sponge Bob Square Pants endorsed everything – valentines had simple illustrations of subjects like entwined hearts and generic looking little boys giving valentines to generic looking little girls.
There were always, however, in every pack of valentines and envelopes (which usually came about 50 of each to a pack so there were plenty to spare in case you screwed up someone’s name – or your own when addressing or signing) one or two that were “special” – they had a scene or sentiment that one knew immediately was destined for that certain someone – him or her for whom one pined in pre-pubescent anguish. This valentine was given in trepidation – one was afraid one’s love offering would be rejected or worse, ignored – more afraid that one’s friends would find out one had made a love offering….
Lee had no such issues with public exposure of his feelings. Allow me to explain.
On Valentine’s Day (which always seemed to occur on a weekday as I remember) the last 30 minutes of the day were spent distributing and then retrieving valentines. Row by row we went up to the front of the room where we shuffled back and forth placing valentines in the paper bags on which each student had written his/her name and that were taped to the chalk tray below the backboard.
Waiting for one’s row to be called was excruciating. Students moved slowly, reading each of their envelopes and dropping the valentine in the appropriate bag. It was a slow dance of duty and desire – and classmates took it seriously.
I must admit I was equally as deliberate when my turn came. I delivered that special valentine with great discretion and studied casualness.
It was ignored, btw.
Finally, Lee’s row was called. As the other students on his row began their methodical distribution of valentine wishes, Lee raced along the row of bags tossing envelopes into each with no attempt to check for accuracy. He even dashed by the teacher’s desk and tossed an envelope onto her pile of cards from the rest of us. Everyone had, of course, given the teacher a valentine – many of the girls had given “real” Valentine’s cards. But all had been delivered to her desk at least carefully, in many cases reverently. Lee tossed his with a flick of the wrist as if dropping one of the candy wrappers that usually littered the floor around his desk at the end of a school day.
Rather than wander around the classroom chatting until the teacher ordered him back to his seat as was his wont, Lee hustled right back to his seat. He waited patiently (for Lee – all the sugar he consumed generally made him pretty fidgety) for the rest of his row to resume their seats.
We were then allowed, row by row, to retrieve our bags and take them to our seats. Once everyone had his/her bag, the teacher gave a signal and we dug into the piles of valentines. Our teacher passed out her valentines to us – small boxes of those candy hearts with nonsense like “Hug me” and “Love” printed on them.
All of us, even our teacher, were distracted looking through the valentines in hopes someone we liked had sent us a special valentine. Gene M., the class hunk, got six or seven “specials.”
I got none. Such, such is life, as Edward Lear observes.
What no one noticed was that Lee had sidled his way along the back of the classroom and made his way to the record player that was always set up and which we listened to occasionally when our teacher wanted to force a little culture on us with “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” or “Moonlight Sonata” or Carl Sandburg reading poetry about the city with big shoulders.
He pulled a 45 record from his jacket and put it on the turntable, set the speed, and cranked the volume all the way up. Just as I completed reading my fifth “Let’s be friends” valentine from one of the girls and pulled one from the pile addressed simply “To You,” he set down the needle.
“From Me to You” by The Beatles blared across the classroom – we looked up, startled, and I noticed that a couple of kids around me were holding those “To You” envelopes, too. I looked over at Lee and he was grinning like the Cheshire Cat.
“Lee! Turn that off! What are you doing?” Miss Williams shouted.
Lee scampered onto the window ledge nearest him and threw open the window. Cold February air rushed across the radiator overheated room.
“That’s The Beatles. They’re the greatest. And this is from me to you,” he yelled to us. Then he was out the window and into the shrubbery below.
I looked from the empty window ledge to Miss Williams. In spite of herself she was nodding along to the Fabs. I tore open the envelope in my hand – the one addressed “To You.” The valentine sentiment was a familiar one: “Let’s be friends.” I flipped it over. Inscribed on the back in slightly shaky block print it said: “From Me.”
This was, I think, my first encounter with genius.
Still, when I tranquilly reflect on this spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion from old Lee, I have to wonder.
What’d he think of The Stones?