The headline of the article caught my eye. "It's Best Not to Play Santa to a Teacher." What is this about, I thought. Turns out it was a small piece urging parents , their students, and even teachers not to give holiday gifts to their teachers. I bristled. Some new kind of teacher bashing? Now teacher's shouldn't get any gifts from students because it sends the wrong message. What next? But a quick read through changed my mind a bit noting that there might be pressure on kids who would love to show their appreciation or fondness for a teacher, but just can't afford to do so. Point taken. The author also mentioned that the best "gifts" are a personal note, which everyone can do. I agree. But it seems a bit over the top that some school districts actually have policies banning any form of appreciation gift to any employee. It's codified. Wonder if it's ever enforced? If only they could focus their egalitarian efforts on other things besides teacher's being appreciated. I know, it's complicated. But it got me thinking of all the things I've received from students, without violating any regulations.
Holidays usually brought cookies, candy canes, and fudge. Occasionally something that really stood out like home made biscotti from a big Italian family whose daughters I was fortunate enough to have in my English classes for two generations. There were oddball gifts too. A battery operated watch that looked far better than it was. Lasted two years...all glitter and glue. There were cards and notes, many of them. I'd collect them all up and put them in the box with my winter-break paper load. Now and then there would be a gift card to a bookstore or coffee shop. My students knew me well. But one little gift that came right out of the blue stands out as most memorable. Here's the back story.
That semester I'd been teaching a 12th grade elective course called International Problems. That year during a unit on World Hunger we were looking at the economies of poor countries that produced big cash crops...crops like coffee. This was in the days before Free Trade coffee, so the students were seeing how countries with an undernourished majority of people could produce huge cash crops that made a small minority very wealthy. During one particularly productive discussion, a student asked what the most expensive coffee was? I took a guess and promised to return the next day with all the information. My guess was right-Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. Going back then for about $17-$20 dollars a pound. The next day, the class was eager to sample some, so we hatched a plan. I promised on the last day of the class we'd have a small party and offer some JBM coffee. The class took up a small collection, and I covered the rest. Coffee for 35 requires a little logistics, but when the day arrived, 3 students brought in portable coffee makers with enough cups and Half/Half and sugar for those who wanted them. Only problem was no Jamaican Blue Mountain. There had been a shortage that year and Japanese buyers had bought up the entire crop. My good friends at Peet's Coffee suggested an alternative. "What's the most expensive coffee currently in the store," I asked. Turns out it was Arabian Mocha Java @ $12.50 a pound. We enjoyed the coffee but it was with the recognition that there was something more valuable out there.
About five years later, on the Friday before the holiday break, a familiar face appeared in the doorway of my classroom shortly before the end of the day. Sofia, a former student from that coffee tasting class entered. Now a college graduate, she returned to campus to see some old friends and teachers. She handed me a small basket of cookies, chatted for a few minutes, then took off. She was doing well, and simply wanted to touch base with some of her high school teachers. I but the little basket in my box and didn't return to it until that evening, when I noticed it felt a little heavy for just cookies. I lifted the napkin covering the bottom of the basket t reveal a pound of Jamaican Blue Mountain coffee. This was a gift I could accept. So much more than a cup of the world's best coffee.