The history teacher drew a complicated diagram explaining the war of 1812 and turned to ask if there were any questions from the class. In the back row a card popped up that read, "You're Cute."

Stephen Gold, 19, of Falls Church says he's flashed his phone number at girls in passing cars and has actually received a few phone calls.

Jerry Geisler, minority leader of the Virginia Assembly, use messages like "Same to You Turkey" to communicate with colleagues a few weeks ago when he had laryngitis.

In each case, the medium was a Ping Pong-shaped paddle made of molded plastic with 21 printed flip card messages, includisdng "I'm Lost," "Take Me I'm Yours" and "Wanna Party?" plus several blank cards for more original phrases. It's been dubbed "the poor man's CB radio."

The "Hi-Sign" craze, which began last fall, now has people communicating not only while driving - the card's original use, with special messages like "Brights On" and "Blikers" - but across crowded bars, in boats and between Metro buses. The $5-item has sold locally to the tune of 7,000 at the Hecht Co., stores and more than 5,000 at Woodies.

"It wasn't quite the replacement for the phenomenal pet rock a few years back," says Harry Bilodeau, the buyer who spotted the item for Woodies. "But it was a good gimmick with a cutesy factor, the price was right and you could have a lot of fun with it."

About a year ago, the creator of Hi-Sign, Paul Steinbaum, 32, was in a New York restaurant, fooling around with his invention, when someone approached him about marketing it. Total sales of the item passed the half-million marks in January.

Steinbaum says he gets a steady stream of mail from purchasers who have put their "Hi-Sign" to good use, including successful flirtation and several marriages.

"We had a situation in Colorado where a girl pulled up to a drive-in teller at a bank," he says. "She thought he looked awfully cute so she flashed her 'Are You Attached? sign at him as he was handling her the change. He wasn't attached then but is now. He immediately asked her out to dinner and they've just gotten engaged."

Steinbaum's firm, Creative Boredom, is currently rereleasing the paddle under a new name, "Sign Language." Also on the way are specialized sets for children, a strictly-for-drivers message package and an X-rated version called "Blues," to include such eye-opening messages as "Let's Get naked" and "I'm Hot."

Steinbaum recently returned from Europe where he has been working up signs in other languages. (The American version has been selling there for $10 and up.)

Meanwhile, what's next in the gimmick world?

One contender, not yet in Washington stores, is called "The Hearty." It will cost $10, is battery-powered, and is designed to pulsate softly. The device is supposed to soothe nerves, cure insomnia and make newborn babies in their cribs feel more at home in the real world.