Thou Shalt Buy (Crap) Gifts for Teacher

I don’t remember bringing Mr. McCormick anything on the last day of third grade (though he really could have used a new corduroy blazer). Mr. Thacker? Not even a World’s Best Teacher mug. Mrs. Pruitt? It never occurred to my mom to buy her another chain for her glasses. On the last day of school, we showed up with flaccid backpacks, goofed off until the bell rang, and then merrily lugged home a year’s worth of forgotten sweaters and art projects. As we got older, we were too distracted obtaining yearbook signatures to think about a small token to thank Mr. Newton for making Physics fun. Maybe moms back-in-the-day (as my boys refer to anything that happened before 2005) arranged group gifts or wrote little letters of thanks. But certainly none of them delivered obnoxious Bloomingdale’s gift cards inside fancy letterpress envelopes to recognize a year of facts remembered.

I have no childhood recollection of this parent/teacher covenant: Thou Shalt Buy (Crap) Gifts For Teacher. Sometimes, this custom requires a slew of annoying emails to organize all moms into donating some pittance as a group nod to the exhaustive effort to keep our children from falling off monkey bars or eating paste. At the conservative Jewish preschool, we contributed our magical $18 toward something that was never a multiple of 18. (Only the enthusiastic, stupid Shiksa mom volunteers to buy The Gift.) My first year at the fancy private school, I offered to do the 11th hour gift card run, but didn’t specify a donation amount. Flabbergasted by the windfall of cash mailed by moms all too happy to be relieved of the task, I bought Mrs. Bell an $800 gift card to Bloomingdale’s. $800. For Mrs. Bell with her Dansko clogs and makeup counter-less life. I realized an $800 gift card is more ridiculous than a t-shirt emblazoned with small, smeary handprints. This end of the year gift pact can be an odd dance.

Under less forced gift-giving circumstances, I am quite good at it. I also love spending money. And for the ladies who have spent the past nine months drilling factoids, feeling for fevers, encouraging excellence, drumming out gross habits, and knowing and loving my kids, I want to buy them something fabulous. In fact, I’m overjoyed to do so. To adequately thank them for a successful year, I want to give them a case of Veuve Clicquot. But a Facebook query running many comments long suggests a Starbucks gift card will suffice.

“Thanks for being patient with Brodie’s stutter, for reading his moods, for not believing the ouchies that didn’t matter, and for celebrating everything that did. Hey, go grab yourself a coffee!”

Jason (a teacher, currently deep into grading papers… and his own bottle) suggested a good Scotch with bawdy note enclosures, “Drink up, bitches!” I could have the children write these in cursive to great effect.

Ultimately, what’s bugging me is the inability of anything in a small gift bag to embody what I feel for these women, to convey how deeply these teeny milestone moments move me (still grateful to be here for them), to let them know they did well, and that I noticed. So I’ll probably write them long, overly effusive letters of thanks… which I’ll then slip next to a nice bottle of Pinot Noir.

Drink up, bitches.

Thank you to all of the (good) teachers... we'll let you know who you are.

Thank you to all of the (good) teachers… we’ll let you know who you are.

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Teachers

Professor Simmons (of Fromage fame) sent the perfect gift: a book! Selected from his favorite purveyor of pre-owned texts and wrapped up in plain brown paper, my darling Professor delivered the syllabus for our next bubbly reunion. If you, like me, are a writer who enjoys reading about writing, then Simple and Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, by Jacques Barzun is Manchego on your apple, Devonshire cream on your scone, sherry by the fire. (And if you, like me, enjoy talking about reading about writing, then welcome to Britt’s Book Club, champagne included.) Although written words about the written word may have the city-slickest of you crying, “Meta!” Mr. Barzun will insist that you resist. After many elegant and witty chapters illustrating ways to sidestep common writing errors, the author reminds us not to take it all too seriously, either.

 Pedantry is a misplaced attention to trifles which then prides itself on its poor judgment.

I assume these beauties slide off of his brandied tongue at any given cocktail party. I want to fill his pipe, TA his class, and write (better). I read the entire text in two sittings and now I am savoring a second study to collect my favorite sentences for the pleasure of saying them aloud. Try it with the quote above and enjoy channeling your best Dowager Countess. Here is another little gem, equally applicable to braving the blank page, choosing a Halloween costume, and approaching the pretty girl at the bar:

Once committed to a cliché… you must not tamper with it.

Regarding the construction of a perfect sentence (or outfit, or one-liner), one may go whole hog (but not pan pig), and the key to success is a steadfast dedication to your point… even if your point is not having one. Here’s mine, tucked into third paragraph and written plain: I just love Professor Simmons and all of the Great Teachers with their easy eloquence, unsolicited gifts, and scholarly encouragement to write (better).

Earlier in the week, I found another treasure in the mail, sandwiched between the piles of glossy encouragements to buy rustic coffee tables and resort clothing. My elderly editor (of Pom Pom fame) sent an amused reply to my chatty letter… and requested a meeting! Luckily, I have the sort of husband who will surrender his wife to another man for a few stolen moments at Church coffee hour. The summons was printed on a thick card embossed with the university library that bears his name, and it directed me to look for him in a red jacket, green cap. I’m so excited to meet an outfit-planning, tryst-arranging, letter-writing, library-naming fellow. This man has ninety brag-worthy years of academic, business, and personal successes, so I feel compelled to bring more to the meeting than my silly, pom pon-wielding passion for the written word. I think baked goods are in order.

Thinking about these delightful Professors Emeriti recalls another: A Gong. I’ve written about my father-in-law oodles of times, so that regular readers know all about energy work and wasabi peas and the understated brilliance of this kind man. Bernie’s father is a student of Qi Gong, a Tai Chi master, a healer, and the former Chairman of the Psychology Department. His East Meets West philosophy elevates all of his pursuits– golf, photography, YouTube videos– to a search for their essence. We all believe that A Gong is a little bit magic. This is a man who can unknot your back, lessen the chemo pain, improve your putt, win the photo show, and introduce you to God. Over the past dozen years I’ve met, hosted, housed, and fed students of all ages who call A Gong, “teacher.” They come from all corners to sit at our table, drink many pots of tea, and pocket bits of A Gong wisdom that we take for granted. Like this:

The tall tree invites the wind.

In the bloggy brouhaha of weeks past, this was A Gong’s take on being so very… public. The image of a proud, towering tree laid flat by the forces of the universe is such a stark contrast to my sunny worldview. But A Gong’s concerns as The Family Patriarch trumped his consideration of these musings as Professor. This is understandable, honorable, expected: his job is to make certain no Evil Things slither into our God-fearing bubble. Unfortunately, Cancer already did… and these pages (and your words) kept that scary beast at bay. Also, these very posts prompted a welcome letter-exchange (a dying practice) with the Great Professor Simmons. It’s also possible that Pom Poms has inspired the beginning of a beautiful, new friendship! Good Things can come of shared writings… not the least of which was three hours of discussion about Love, Truth, and Internet Evils with my father-in-law. Writers must write… but psychologists must analyze.

And now, I leave you with the words of another teacher (Liberal Joe) who, because of what I was writing (and omitting), sensed I wasn’t my bubbly self. He inspired me to remember the point: why I began writing these little essays a year ago… and maybe even why the Great Professors are sending books and letters of encouragement.

On your last thought on the loss of peace: So find peace. Be peaceful. Beautiful, bright, thoughtful and well written go real well with peaceful.

Jacques Barzun wouldn’t say it any better.

That's me... still standing.

That’s me… still standing.