Wait, I Have to Buy a Gift for the School Janitor?!

Nothing brings out that Grinch-y holiday feeling quite like mandatory gift giving for everyone from teacher to crossing guard.

At first, I couldn’t figure out why our neighbor’s daughter was carrying so many bags. She was walking to school with my kindergartner, Blair, and me, as she did almost every day. But today was special. It was the day before the holiday break, a half-day, no less, that would be filled with nothing but jingle-belling and nondenominational word searches and the donning and strutting of various gay apparel.

As we approached the corner, the girl reached out to hand one of her bags to Emma the Crossing Guard.

“Happy holidays!” the girl exclaimed, all joyous and merry.

“Thank you, hon,” Emma the Crossing Guard replied, all joyous and merry, and handed the neighbor girl a candy cane. Emma then handed a candy cane to Blair and—as if it couldn’t get worse—one to my younger daughter, Drew, whom I was pushing in a stroller.

The fact that I didn’t say out loud what was pulsing in my head was a bona fide Christmas miracle: “Oh, shit.”

I thought I’d done a pretty good job for my first foray into elementary-school holiday gift-giving. At that very moment, in Blair’s pink-striped backpack, were two bigger-than-her-head loaves of banana bread—one for her teacher, and one for the teacher’s aide. Blair had helped me bake them. Kind of. I measured out the flour, she dumped it in. I measured the sugar, she dumped it in. I measured the buttermilk, she zombie-walked toward Dora Saves the Snow Princess on TV. Before Blair went to bed, I made her sign little gift cards. I wrapped the loaves in tin foil, then in crisp white dish towels with red reindeers on them that I’d bought at Pottery Barn in February for 75 percent off.

Homemade. Useful. Festive. Cheap.

Not once, not even in a passing daydream on the elliptical, had it ever occurred to me that I should be making banana bread for Emma the Crossing Guard, or for Becky (or was it Betty?) the Other Crossing Guard. What about the art teacher? The gym teacher? What about the janitor?

There wasn’t much time before the 12:30 dismissal bell to make it right with the crossing guards, even though I wasn’t exactly clear on what “it” was. Still, I jogged over to the daycare to drop off Drew (along with the 10-for-$10 small bottles of holiday-smelling lotion—“Sugar Plum,” “Gingerbread House,” “Sap”—that I’d bought at Jo-Ann Fabric and individually wrapped in flouncy red tissue paper for the whole staff). Then I ran home and preheated the oven to 350 degrees.

The last banana in the basket looked more like a charred cat leg than fruit, but these were desperate times. I poured the batter into two small bread pans and, as it baked, tore through the attic in search of those plastic snowman gift bags my mom gave me approximately 13 years ago, “just in case.” At 12:15, I posted a frantic query on Facebook: “Emergency! The Crossing Guard at the corner of Center and Melrose … Becky or Betty?” A mom down the street responded seconds later—“Becky.” Check. If I said I didn’t write the cards with my left hand to make it look like they’d been written by a five-year-old, I’d be lying.

I picked up Blair with the bags of loaf hidden in my purse, waiting until we were out of the crosshairs of other parents before I pulled them out, placed them in her mittened hands, and whispered, “Give these to the crossing guards.”

“Why?” she asked.

“Because … ” I said, then stopped, reviewing the events of the morning and feeling pretty certain I’d just emerged on the other side of a psychotic break. “You know, I’m really not sure.”

This I was sure of: You could never fail with a home-baked good.

I could remember handing tins of homemade Christmas cookies to my elementary-school teachers—to my main teachers, i.e., not the school nurse, the lunch lady, or the assistant to the assistant principal—and feeling pretty proud about it. I could not remember baking the cookies or writing the teacher’s name on the gift sticker, though my mother assures me now that “of course you did.”

I also could not remember my mother and me ever having a conversation about how we needed to show our teachers how much we appreciated them, or about how teachers spent lots of their own time and money on their students and we needed to acknowledge that, or about how teachers got paid crap and deserved a little somethin’ somethin’ during this, the most wonderful time of the year. I assume that my mother believed all those things. But the way I saw it, kids just gave baked goods to teachers at Christmas. Like emptying the ashtrays at my parents’ cocktail parties, it was simply how we did things back then.

I felt pretty confident that in the 26 years since I’d last set cutouts in a snowflake tin on the desk of an educator, those cutouts still sent the same message—“Our family is so thankful for what you do that we risked all of our lives by allowing our five-year-old to use the electric mixer.” Some moms I know are harder-core. They make fancy truffles, jam, chocolate-covered pretzels, bark, peppermint bark, peppermint bark popcorn. Home-baked goods have gravitas. Giving a spiced nut isn’t just “giving a spiced nut.” We are giving our time and our energy, even if said time and energy are expended in a crazed high-noon frenzy because we didn’t realize that crossing guards had now made it onto the “Yes, you have to get them something, too” list at school.

How did this happen? And how did we let it?

“I give gifts to everyone I can think of because I believe in saying thank-you,” said my mom-pal Brenda in Media, who admitted that she has, in the past, upped the school gift-giving ante by knitting items for her kids’ teachers, of which she has three. This, of course, made me feel like a bad mother. For, like, a minute. Because I then talked to Center City mom Sandra: “I just contribute money toward the class gift and let it be someone else’s problem. I’m just grateful to have that shit taken care of.”

Just then, I had a fleeting memory of an evening way, way, way back at the beginning of September when I sat at the kitchen counter writing out checks—$60 for the town soccer league, $5 for the PTA membership, $20 for the … “kindergarten fund.” Did that pay for more than bulk boxes of hand sanitizer? I checked with another kindergarten mom.

“Yep, we gave her a $100 gift card to Target.” A gift card? To Target? Whose idea was that? There was no arguing that a teacher didn’t need another Precious Moments figurine, mug, magnetic shopping-list pad, ornament, scented candle, or plaque engraved with the lyrics to “Wind Beneath My Wings.” But a Target gift card? That required zero time or energy. It couldn’t be more generic, more impersonal. And worse yet, it felt obligatory, like kissing a great-aunt.

“Did your family give her anything special on top of that?” I asked.

“Hells no!”

I felt like I missed a memo or something. What were the rules now? Everyone, including the aide to the reading aide and the guy who takes down the flag, should receive a gift? And said gifts should have absolutely no meaning at all? It was clearly time to seek professional advice.

Alas, Emily Post was vague on this point. While she took a pretty clear stand on gifts to, say, hospital nurses (no money) and clergy (theater tickets? an address book?), her only suggestion for school gifts was to “involve your child in the choice or creation of the gift if you can.” How helpful.

Three days after my Great Mini-Banana-Bread Bake-Off, my Haddonfield pal Molly shared that she’d purchased Dunkin’ Donuts gift cards for her kids’ daycare teachers. Another friend in Bucks told me she’d collected cash from all the parents in her neighborhood to buy the bus driver a Wawa gift card, and that she’d ordered monogrammed lunch bags from L.L. Bean because “Teachers have to eat lunch, right?”

Monogrammed lunch bags? Wow. That seemed pretty extravagant to me. I figured her kids must have been really difficult that term, especially when a dad in Upper Gwynedd admitted he gave wine-store gift cards because “after taking care of my little bastard every day, I feel they could use a drink.” Perhaps, then, the newest rule in giving was that the value of the gift rises in proportion to the pain-in-the-ass-ness of the kid.

Except it wasn’t just that.

“I give too much,” said a Lafayette Hill mom of a very low-maintenance child. “Always $75 or more on an Am-Ex gift card.” Not too much for a parent in our neighborhood, who forked over a $100 prepaid Visa to a daycare teacher. There was also a rumor that another parent had given a $300 card to Bloomie’s. Then there was the Friends Central parent who gave Barbra Streisand concert tickets. And the one out in Radnor who gave her kid’s teacher a Fendi bag.

A Fendi bag? How was that decision made? “Honey, should we pay the teacher’s mortgage for a month? Maybe give her a round-trip ticket to Mumbai? Oh! I’ve got it! A Fendi bag! Now our Frankie will totally get a ‘Satisfactory’ on the ‘Exercises Self-Control’ line on his report card this spring!” Because, c’mon: How do you give a Fendi bag and not expect something in return?

“This is totally overwhelming!” screamed my college friend Dara. She owned up to having given her kid’s teacher a handwritten note and a lottery ticket. But another college pal chimed in with a voice of reason (and strategy): “If a little bribery means that people might treat your kid better or give them extra help, so be it.”

That cuts both ways. I was more stressed about potential repercussions for no gift or, worse, a bad one. I envisioned Emma the Crossing Guard stomping into her house and tossing my lame, runty bread into the trash, shouting, “Well, that’s the last time I walk out in the street with a stop sign for that kid!”

I convinced myself I was being ridiculous, because I was being ridiculous. The gift-receivers would never ding a kid because her parents didn’t tuck a crisp Benjamin into a holiday card. Right?

Because that wasn’t an exaggeration. Parents also give cash.

“Like a tip?” asked a PTA mom, her jaw hanging to the hem of her yoga pants. She gave her kids’ teachers bags of coffee.

“I guess so,” I said.

“Isn’t that insulting? You tip a waitress, not a teacher.”

“Right. Someone who provides a service. Like a cleaning lady.”

“Yeah,” she said. “Or a whore.”

“Last year was big for fake to-go cups,” explained my pre-K-teacher friend Christine, who’s been teaching elementary school for almost two decades. She reached into her kitchen cabinet and pulled out three identical clear plastic cups with straws in them that you can reuse, which looked exactly like clear plastic cups with straws in them that you throw away.

I’d stopped by her house to do a little recognizance, to try and get inside the mind of the other side: What do the teachers have to say about all of this forcible gift-giving? Was I out of control? Yes. Was this whole subject of gift-giving out of control? Definitely. But the trouble was, I wasn’t sure which part got out of control first.

Christine (who, it should be noted, has brought in breakfast for her kids’ teachers) told me she’d never received an envelope filled with cold hard cash, though she did love the Barnes & Noble gift card that came across her desk last year. Gift cards, she said, were awesome. What wasn’t awesome? The three-inch-high solar-powered bobbing-flower figurine on her kitchen table.

“I have two of those,” she said flatly.

So much for my Target argument. Another teacher said he’d kill for a gift card. The truth is, he’s thrown out just about every gift he’s ever gotten except the “God-related ones,” which he stores in a box in his basement because, his wife says, “You can’t put God in the garbage.”

I wasn’t sure what was stranger, the gifts that some parents gave or the fact that some teachers actually kept them: A scented wax teddy bear. Giant ceramic hands. Nail clippers. A crotchless latex body suit(!). A box of high-end department-store caramels with two pieces missing. A used candle. An empty wine bottle with a string of Christmas lights stuffed inside. Egg rolls. A cookbook of corn.

I expected the teachers I polled to be snarky about the weird stuff, because frankly, I would be snarky. (A year doesn’t go by that I don’t remind my husband how, for my 30th birthday, he gave me a bedspread.) But they weren’t. “I rarely hear ‘You’re doing a good job’ from anyone,” said a Wynnewood teacher. “Those tokens from parents represent, to me, that someone appreciates me.”

I hadn’t thought about that. It actually never occurred to me that teachers—and, apparently, crossing guards—might need gifts to know that they were, in fact, making a difference. This wasn’t about how parents (and, by default, our kids) were viewed in the eyes of the teachers, but rather the other way around. Teachers needed a sign, whether it was a $500 gift card for Rescue Rittenhouse or a half-loaf of banana bread in a snowman gift bag. Even if baked goods were so 1982. Except then I found out I had been, um, foiled.

“I never eat anything homemade.”

“Unless it’s prepackaged, I don’t eat the food.”

“I don’t eat a single loaf.”

“If someone gives me a baked gift, I put it in the faculty room with a note saying who baked it. When you see how dirty some of the lunch boxes are, you have to wonder.”

Great. Now I had to clean lunch boxes, too.

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