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.”