Each year at this time, as the last day of school before Winter Break approaches, I am thankful. Thankful that I get two weeks off at a time of year when many people get a measley few days, yes. But also thankful that I will not be receiving a mountain of bewildering gifts from my students. I teach high school, where the most I’m likely to get in a given year is a couple of small boxes of chocolate or a plate of homemade cookies or fudge, maybe a gift certificate to a local book store, any of which I can handle.
My first three years of teaching, I worked at a Catholic junior high school in a toney neighborhood in West LA. For the sake of my story, we’ll call it Our Lady of Perpetual Privilege. (If you buy me a drink sometime, I’ll tell you about the various athletes and minor-league stars whose kids went there, and which of them had coke habits or obvious plastic surgery.)The combination of teaching younger students and the particular culture at that school meant I got a gift from each and every family, usually a full-fledged, non-edible, unwrap-it-with-trepidation gift. I got the usual array of cheesy teacher gifts: plenty of paper weights and a ton of apple-themed or “world’s greatest teacher” tchotchkes. But I also collected a surprising array of clothing and accessories. Purses, jewelry, sweaters, dresses, even a mohair suit one time. Now in theory, a mohair suit sounds like a great idea – but alas, the colors were all kinds of wrong (some sort of yellow-orange-purple mohair-tweed nightmare). In fact, that was the case with almost all of the items of personal apparel I received from my students and their families. Not surprisingly, they had not a clue about my taste, and their own taste was terrible. Receiving their gifts was very odd, and very uncomfortable.
Each year, I was faced with the task of dragging this mountain of unwanted giftage back to the small one-bedroom apartment I shared with my then-boyfriend (located in a decidedly untoney West LA neighborhood). Then what? I am constitutionally incapable of regifting (mostly due to my own vanity: the idea of giving a gift whose taste I find revolting bugs me, because then the gifted person will think I have revolting taste, which I can’t abide even with a random acquaintance). The local Goodwill is always an option, but then there’s that twinge of guilt at cramming an item received as a gift into an overstuffed collection box full of used clothes and second-hand bedding. Generally, it took at least a year for that “I am a gift, do not misuse me” aura to wear off enough to cram the peachy-pink sweater or huge horrendous purse down the waiting maw of the Goodwill box. And in the meantime, the pile of unwanted crap sat, taking up valuable closet space.
Occasionally, there would be a tag or box indicating where the horrendous gift originated, and so theoretically I could return it and choose something more to my liking (or just take the money and run). Unlike sending a gift straight to Goodwill, exchanging a gift does not seem ungrateful. You’re not actually rejecting the gift; you’re just revising it. Alas, the stores where my students’ families shopped were rarely in neighborhoods I frequented, and I was not about to make a special trip to Rodeo Drive just to return a Waterford crystal American flag paper weight, much as I wanted to get rid of it. (Remember, I hate shopping
, no matter how highbrow the shopping district.)
Once I actually did return a student-given gift, a "fun" faux-pearl necklace with giant fake pearls a la Wilma Flintstone. The store happened to be right on the way the LA County Museum of Art, where I was taking my mom. I figured we’d pop in, get the $10 or so refund, and with it I’d take my mom out for coffee at the museum. We entered the swank department store, made our way to the jewelry department, and I proffered the necklace for return. The clerk asked if I had the receipt, which I did not, and she said “Oh, too bad. I’ll have to give you the sale price.” At which point she handed me fifty bucks and change.
Fifty bucks? On sale? For this tacky bit of costume jewelry? I was psyched at the windfall of $50, but I was also kind of appalled that the family had spent so much on my Christmas gift (and in early nineties dollars). I made me wonder, what goes through the minds of the rich? When I say, “Oh, Hell. It's only $4.95, why not?” are they saying “Oh, Hell. It's only $50, why not?"
Anyway, while I’m revisiting horrifying Student Gifts of Christmas Past, I must give props where props are due. I did receive a few great gifts during my time at Our Lady of Perpetual Privilege. The gracious and extremely chic mother of one of my favorite seventh graders, Bebo, got me a fetching black leather purse with faux leopard trim that I still use on certain dressy occasions. And Tatyana gave me a hardbound copy of Kahil Gibran’s The Prophet
one year, and then the next year her sister gave me a slang dictionary, remembering that I had wished aloud for one several months earlier. I’m grateful to those families for having decent taste and good sense.
To those of you who are currently searching for something to give your child’s teacher, some advice: avoid the perfume and jewelry aisles, shun clothing and accessories, and stay away from anything cutesy, patriotic, or teacher-themed. Gift certificates are always safe, and chocolate is a fair bet. Most people love it as it deserves to be loved, and if they don’t, it’s one gift that you can regift with your head held high.
Hey, I just remembered: I actually did regift one
of my LA teacher presents, the Waterford crystal American flag paper weight! I gave it to my communist-sympathizing, pot-smoking, fourth-of-July-mocking lawyer friend. Now that
was a rare and beautiful regifting.