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.

“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.