Teachers are blessed with trinkets of love and gratitude throughout their careers, especially those who get to work with the young ones. My friend, who taught upper elementary and middle school, used to make me laugh and ooh over her latest blessing. I could just see the cute little kid stumbling up to her all smiles and with a long-winded explanation or no explanation at all.
As a high school teacher I never expected much, and it did take time for students to warm up to me. Surprisingly, a student would drop off a Christmas package or a Teacher Appreciation Week treat or something from their travels the following year. While I’ve indulged in some wonderful Christmas goodies, my favorite had to be the homemade crackers and “Christmas Jelly” that I nearly demolished in a few minutes, hunkered over the kitchen counter, my purse and coat on the floor. What can I say? It beat grading 40 reports on Julius Caesar. My husband got enough of a taste that I had to find my own recipe and pass on the tradition of the mysterious, divine, and super simple jelly.
Then one year it seemed like a bunch of my students were travelling the world. The top of my classroom bookcase made me look like the world traveler even though I’ve barely made it out of the country. I had other mementos of working with youth over the summer, and I treasure every single one. The plastic bus, the hand-crafted African box, the parrot key chain–each one conjures up wonderful memories and precious faces.
As I packed these away to move for my job in prison I let the memories wash over me. I wouldn’t be seeing anything like them for awhile, I didn’t think. Prisoners don’t thank their teachers, right? And even if they wanted to, what would they use?
In Last Chance in Texas: The Redemption of Criminal Youth John Hubner writes about this when he sits down for breakfast with the humble football coach. Sandy Brown pulls out his collection of handmade gifts, finally landing on his favorite, a tiny box wrapped as if for Christmas. One of the female offenders looked up to him as a father figure and wanted to give him a Christmas present. Hubner writes, “‘…the box is empty. And that’s the best part.’ Reverently, Brown slides a note from under the ribbon and unfolds it. He clears his voice and reads: ‘You can never unwrap it/Please leave the ribbon tied. Just hold the box close to your heart/ Because it’s filled with love inside.'”
If they want to send you a message, they use what they have, their imagination, some paper, pencils, and sometimes they’ll get creative with some gold foil like the girl from Texas. They don’t seem to trust words, so the first token of appreciation I received was a picture, beautifully shaded, with my name. He is notoriously lazy, so he talked it up for weeks and weeks, and when he finally handed it to me I was extremely grateful. He and I had also had a rough start as I tried to establish myself in my new setting. This was our truce. Even though I don’t understand, and therefore can’t appreciate it like my students, the street-style art was done with care and some talent. Next, I got an origami dog, but I was warned later about the motivation behind this. I cleared out a drawer at home for my new, strange collection. Today I got a handmade, 3D Feliz Navidad and Happy 2013 card that obviously took a lot of time and care. It’s probably one of the most thoughtful cards I’ve ever received. To a stranger these gifts are of little value, but to me they are as priceless as any gift I received “on the outs.”