I’ve never experienced such an outpouring of appreciation. Over the past two days students have been coming up to me to give me holiday cards and gifts. There’s a good possibility that I am not even supposed to accept anything from students. I don’t ask because if the answer is that I cannot, then I don’t want to know.
I gave it a lot of thought the first time it happened last year. “Is it wrong for me to accept this gift?” I had wondered. The reason it gave me even one sleepless night stems from the fact that our clientele, for the most part, do not have a lot of money. Many are refugees who do well just to get mittens on the hands of all their children before the first frost.
So I turned it over in my mind for a few nights. The decision that I reached comes from the way they look at me when they hand over their gifts. I can tell that each one has put so much heart into it. I cannot crush them in that moment with some line about student-teacher boundaries. No. I beam at them, thank them, and go home to write a thank you note saying how much I will cherish their gift.
One couple from my regular class who are especially dear to me cornered me on Wednesday to hand off a large bag. The wife looked me right in the eye and said, “This is for YOU. Just YOU.” I never open the bags at school, so I was home that evening before I realized it was a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon. I really couldn’t believe it. It was so far beyond what I was expecting.
The biggest outpouring has come from the class that I have had for the past five weeks while their regular instructor has been away. One student also gave me a little fuzzy poncho for my shoulders. Another got me a box of chocolates. And somehow, behind my back, they took up a collection and got me a gift certificate. No class has ever done that for me before.
The gift that has touched me most deeply, though, has been from the student I described in my last post–the one who is always ready for the spelling test. He comes from a culture where it is considered respectful to speak softly, and he does. His group is also one that struggles more than others with the transition to urban life and academics. I overhear instructors sometimes making generalizations about them, and I will admit that when one of them rises at a normal pace through the levels, it surprises even me.
Within a couple of days of my taking on this temporary assignment, I noticed that he was working extremely hard and had very good study habits. On computer lab days he took advantage of the word lists I’d set up in SpellingCity. While I was trying to get others to understand where to go and what to click, he was busy taking the spelling test over and over until he got 100%. Then he would busy himself with the syntax exercises. I noticed. As I walked up the narrow aisle between computers and passed behind him, touched his shoulder ever so briefly and acknowledged, “I can see you’re working hard.”
The next thing I noticed was his writing. Again, he was diligently trying to master the language point I’d presented that week, and was doing well with it. I enjoyed writing encouraging comments on his compositions. When the assignment was to tell about a feast day in your first culture, he wrote about coconut filled sticky rice balls.
The next day he approached me with his usual bashfulness and barely audible voice to hand me a Tupperware container.
“I made myself,” he said.
That night I opened the box to find eight glistening sticky rice balls with coconut filling. I only meant to taste one before supper, but one led to two led to… eight sticky rice balls for supper for me. They were amazing. I returned his washed container the next day with a bag of almonds inside. (The students taught me that you never return a container empty!)
All this is just a lead up to the gift that is the most precious to me of all of them. It’s what he wrote on his Christmas card to me:
You are a very good teacher. You are very kind and always smile. I’m happy to study English with you. I’m very happy at school. I wish you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Sincerely, L
I think I’ll put it where I can read it every day.