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.

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.”