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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: Remember the letter in your column about the teacher who asked students to write compliments to one another, and then passed them along to each individual? Well, Abby, I used her idea -- with wonderful results!

I work in "Chaya," a prison ministry for incarcerated youth in Arizona. Last year, two weeks before Valentine's Day, I gave a talk on love and respect for one another to 25 girls between the ages of 12 and 18. Afterward, I passed out paper and pencils to the girls and instructed them to write a compliment for each girl -- and to say nothing if they didn't have anything nice to say. I told them not to sign their names, as all compliments should be given out of love, not the hope of being thanked. Nearly all the girls complimented every other girl.

I took the papers home that night and typed a list of compliments for each girl. I deleted anything negative or questionable, including the few slang terms with which I was unfamiliar. I cut out 25 large red hearts and pasted a compliment list to the back of each one. My children decorated the front with doilies, stickers, pictures and lace.

I distributed the hearts to the girls at the Valentine party we hosted. I asked each girl to read her compliments to herself and then to share the one compliment that meant the most to her, and the one that surprised her the most. It was a meaningful experience, especially for these troubled girls who have had little or no affection or positive affirmation in their lives. The girls told me how much they cherished these hearts, and the staff allowed them to be hung on their walls -- which was a great privilege for them.

Abby, I would like to thank the person who came up with that idea, and you for printing it. It took some work on my part to make sure no one was hurt by insults, but that was a responsibility I enjoyed because I got to read all the outpouring of love. -- LITA JOHNSON, PHOENIX

DEAR LITA: You took a terrific idea and ran with it, which is to your credit. We all need positive reinforcement from time to time.

It appears that everyone, including yourself, benefited from the assignment -- the surest sign that it was a real winner!

DEAR ABBY: I have been going out with my brother's wife, "Angie." They are separated and she has filed for divorce. For the past five years, my brother has alternated living with his wife in one house and with another "lady" in a different house.

I have always liked Angie, and have seen her go through much unhappiness with him. I have always wished to be with her and to treat her with the respect she deserves, but she has always tolerated my brother's double life.

Last month she left him. That's when I decided to express my feelings to her. I was surprised to learn that she has always had the same feelings for me. We started talking on the phone, and now have gone out a couple of times. There has been no "fooling around," and there won't be before her divorce is final.

My brother and I are not close. We have had our share of disagreements, and I know he will feel that I am doing this to get back at him. I really care for Angie, and I don't know what to do. Any advice for me? -- CONFUSED IN CALIFORNIA

DEAR CONFUSED: Yes, if you and Angie are meant for each other, waiting a few months should not make a difference to any future you have together. Put the romance "on hold" until her divorce is final. To have an open romance now will only complicate her divorce. There is already enough tension between you and your brother, so don't add to it.

To receive a collection of Abby's most memorable -- and most frequently requested -- poems and essays, send a business-sized, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 ($4.50 in Canada) to: Dear Abby's "Keepers," P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, IL 61054-0447. (Postage is included.)

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