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Virginia Journal of Education

More Than the Gift

Presents at the holidays offer an opportunity for educators.

By Kathy Sydnor

Long ago, I learned that one of the perks of being a teacher happens every Christmas. At this time of year, non-educators would describe their fringe benefits, including holiday bonuses and, oh, it was hard to listen without a tinge of seasonally inappropriate envy. However, for me, that feeling is today replaced by the image of myself at the end of the last-day-before-the-Christmas-holiday. Encircled by boxes and tin cans of homemade goodies, small packages containing random teaching-themed items, and cards propped open to reveal the givers’ signatures, it’s as if I’m a teacher Christmas tree surrounded with gifts of gratitude, affection and holiday spirit. Best. . . fringe benefit. . . ever!

(During my years as a student and most of my years as a teacher, virtually everyone called Christmas just that, rather than “the winter holiday.” I hope my doing so here doesn’t offend anyone.) 

Truly though, a holiday present is about more than the gift itself or even the question of whether it’s better to give than to receive: This annual tradition is an(other) opportunity for an educator. Even in what may be essentially a civility for some, the potential is present—as always— to affect a student’s self-image or confidence. The teacher’s “thank you for being a thoughtful human being” is vindicating in a way that has nothing to do with academic performance. It’s sort of a fringe benefit for the pupil. Indeed, it was as a young pupil that I learned this lesson. I still have the thank you/Christmas card that Mrs. D, my second-grade teacher, gave me. Her sentences of teachery cursive make me smile even now.

Yes, as a young elementary student, I discovered the impact of the giver-receiver-giver dynamic. My mother made sure that my sisters, brother and I had remembrances for our respective teachers. She often used a Christmas card to “wrap” a piece of her crocheted handiwork, such as a bookmark. Sometimes, instead, we presented our teachers with tiny boxes—each of which held jewelry, usually a pin.

I still recall the thrill I felt when the teacher opened and beamed over my gift in front of the entire class, as well as the later thrill of seeing that bookmark inside a text on the teacher’s desk or that shining pin perched on the Peter Pan collar of yet another Mrs. D’s blouse. Much later, as an adult, I received a third thrill: I was told by a visitor to my first grade teacher’s house that her entire home was decorated with her collection of student gifts. Our tributes had meant so much to this (third) Mrs. D that she surrounded herself with them, to view and use on a daily basis. Best. . . thank you. . . ever!

Even so, my most memorable affirmation of the value of this gift-and-people relationship came in high school. My 10th-grade English teacher (unbelievably, also a Mrs. D), was a petite woman whose usual school attire was a conservative but stylish suit that emanated quality, as did she. My mother crocheted a small, beaded and sequined stocking of Christmas green for her and sewed a safety pin on its back so it could be worn easily. When Mrs. D spied this stocking, even with the irregularities that made it one-of-a-kind, she unhesitatingly pulled it from its cotton cushion and immediately attached it to the flip of her classic, tie blouse. She modeled, unforgettably, how to accept a gift, especially when in the presence of the giver, and she gave me a present that day, too. Best. . . response. . . ever!

As I remember Mrs. D’s reaction, I can only hope that I responded nearly as effectively to my students’ holiday gifts through the years. They were very generous, in a wide variety of ways. I do recall that, by Christmas break time, I was generally very frenzied, sometimes even frantic—about both school and holiday work. This often caused a conflict between my desire to emulate Mrs. D and my devotion to the lesson planned for the day. Usually, a student would present his present and say, “Open/Read it now!” or “Aren’t you going to look at it now?”, so the choice (thankfully!) became easier to make.

As a result of those days, when I take out my Christmas items, I get a trip right down Santa Claus Lane to memory lane. While many of my holiday heirlooms come from the family side of memory lane, many others come from the teacher side. Opening those stored bags and boxes allows me to remember some of the best parts—and people, both students and colleagues—of my 31 years of teaching. And, as was my first grade teacher before me, I am the owner of a wonderful collection. In the spirit of giver-receiver-giver, I’d like to share a peek at those best. . . gifts. . . ever!

Christmas tree decorations are probably the most predominant presents I’ve received. One of the earliest is still stored in its original, now worn box. The 1980-dated, satin-like, round Hallmark ornament with “Merry Christmas, Teacher” was given to me by a young lady who became and has remained my friend for over three decades. Another teacher-themed ornament has Santa wearing a red mortarboard and displaying “Merry Christmas to an A+ Teacher” on a handheld blackboard.

Bells are popular, possibly because of their appropriateness for both Christmas and schoolhouses. One of mine is made of olive wood and came, I believe, from the Holy Land. It has a long green embroidery thread attached, so it arrived to be hung easily. The giver’s adjustment to an American school had not been as easy initially. Most likely what would now be an ESL student, he eventually fit in fine-- despite his heavy accent—and even sang Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the USA" in the annual talent show. (Ah, the details we have tucked away!)
I also have a snowman made of two small Styrofoam balls, some yarn for arms and legs, a felt hat, and googly eyes. The talent continues with a reindeer crafted from two wooden clothespins, more felt, and two more googly eyes. DECA at my high school created a decorative reindeer by using a candy cane along with twisted pipe cleaners, a mini pompom, and the beloved googly eyes. Wonderfully enough, the sponsor of this organization was one of my earliest students, who had returned to teach where she’d been taught. Although all teachers received a reindeer, I felt as if mine came especially from my former student (whose name—yes, it’s true!—is “Dee”).
This sweet decoration leads to a special group of frequently received remembrances: food! My recollections of edible wonders are mainly evidenced now by the Christmas tins and the notes or gift tags I saved. I even kept some of the fancy Whitman, Russell Stover, etc., boxes. My students definitely appealed to my love of chocolate—a fondness which became clear to them through my chocolate bulletin board. Some sent homemade chocolate fudge, with and without nuts. The candy offerings even included molded mints and heavenly divinity. Chocolate also starred in other baked goods, primarily in brownies and chocolate chip cookies. As for cookies, the types weren’t limited; they came in virtually every kind—sometimes in a single gift. One such plate of cookies lingers in my memory, for it was baked by a mother who later opened her own “cakery.”

One of the most endearing food gifts happened to be cookies—homemade ones from a Creative Writing I student. The sweets were definitely delicious, but it was the timing of the gift that was most memorable. Our high school was on a four-by-four block schedule, and I first taught this young man in second semester, which began, obviously, after December. Nevertheless, he brought me his tin of thoughtfulness at Christmas of the next school year, which also preceded the semester in which I was blessed to have him in my Creative Writing II class. Thus, the gift was an after and a before thank you.  Best. . . non-current student remembrance. . . ever!

Miscellaneous presents account for the remaining members of my holiday collection. For instance, a gift tag reminds me of the huge poinsettia I received from a young lady in my first ever Dual Enrollment English class. A “Crystal Clear Happy Holiday Mailbox Caddy (Holds Very Special Deliveries—Candies, Decorations, Tiny Treasures)” sits in its original box. That mailbox-shaped item, now empty, came filled with, of course, chocolates. A still-working music box from the daughter of a fellow English teacher reiterates the earlier reindeer theme. Finally, lighting the corners of these memories are the candles which range in shape and size from traditional tapers of red and green, to votives nestled in delicate glass holders, to hefty, scent-infused columns.

Perhaps inspired by their students’ generosity and by the meaning of the holiday itself, many teachers have their own gift-giving and relationship-solidifying traditions, too. A long-time English colleague and friend always brought candy canes to her charges. Another, also from my department, baked and decorated cupcakes for her “hons.”

My own approach evolved with time and as an expression of my advocacy of and efforts at recycling. My family sometimes cut used Christmas cards to create personalized or unique gift tags (and to save money). I eventually decided to re-use the front halves of some of the Christmas cards I had received during the preceding years. (It took me a while to collect enough to give one to each student, even after my total student load per semester decreased due to the block scheduling.) After dating the card, I’d add a greeting and the student’s name, a message of “Happy holidays!” and/or sometimes a more individualized note, and my good old signature. As time and selections permitted, I matched the card’s art to a student’s interests or preferences. Placing these repurposed cards in a student’s in-class journal folder was a perfect (and a “surprise”) delivery system. It was amazing how many students thanked me, many times in person, but just as often with response notes in their journals. My favorite reaction was their writing, almost apologetically, to explain that their cards were now missing because they’d taken those greetings home with them! A simple Christmas card had been given twice with results doubly nice. Furthermore, a fantastic cycle had been created:  giver (of the card)- receiver (of the card)- re-giver (of the card)- re-receiver (of the card).  The original giver had, unintentionally and unknowingly, “paid it twice.” Best. . . regifting. . . ever!

In years when I didn’t have enough recycled card fronts, I had an alternate plan. After the penultimate journal entry before the Christmas holidays, I’d add the date, greeting, message and signature, along with a Christmas sticker, a stick-on gift tag, or even a decorative image cut from the plethora of peel-off charity address labels I’d get in the mail. I knew this approach worked, too, when I’d see a P. S. that cleared up the sticker’s removal to be placed on something that the writer carried home. Even the glue on a holiday sticker can cement the last link in a positive gift-giver-receiver-giver chain.

So, with this year’s winter holidays upon us, may you find a method that works for you. Also, may you never be too harried or hurried to respond with sincere affirmation to whatever gifts come your way. It’s true that “in giving, we receive,” and I’d like to add that “in receiving, we give again.” Here’s to the best. . .holiday season. . . ever!

Sydnor, a retired lifetime VEA member, belonged to the King George Education Association for her entire 31-year teaching career.


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