Schools’ three R’s: Reading, writing and receiving gifts


First grader Janae Harris presents her teacher Kelly Grinham with gifts including an ornament, make-up bags, and a mirror at Spark Matsunaga Elementary School. (Ricky Carioti/WASHINGTON POST)

The day before winter vacation, the drop-off traffic in front of Spark M. Matsunaga Elementary School in Germantown on Friday was slowed by gift-bearing children in elf hats and Santa caps. A first-grader and her mother approached Principal Judy Brubaker to make their first delivery.

“What do you say?” prompted the mother, Ann Marie Hakki.

“Happy holidays,” Anissa Hakki mumbled, handing Brubaker a silver box. When Brubaker complimented how the silver bow matched the bow in the girl’s hair, the mother laughed. “I’m Type A.”

The December holidays bring lessons in gift-giving for many children and questions about etiquette for parents. Bringing a gift for the teacher is a popular tradition, but is it a must? And should you stop there? It can take a Type A mother to figure it out.

There are gift policies to navigate. Fairfax County encourages handmade cards in place of gifts. Prince George’s County requires teachers to disclose gifts worth more than $25. And Montgomery County has a $25 limit on gifts.

In middle school, as the number of teachers multiplies, the number of gifts tends to diminish. By high school, many teens are no longer enthusiastic about delivering brightly wrapped packages to a teacher’s desk.

But in elementary school, where hugs are still given freely and children spend most of their waking hours with a few key adults, teachers fall next to siblings on children’s gift lists.

By winter vacation, many teachers can cover their refrigerator doors with handmade cards, decorate a tree (or fill a shoe box) with a collection of apple-shaped ornaments, and put on a good 10 pounds from assorted sweets.

Brubaker has accumulated decades’ worth of ornaments and holiday cards. This year, she received a set of holiday-adorned rubber duckies from a fifth-grader and a half-eaten candy cane from an earnest kindergartner. She is grateful for every kind gesture — even the wrinkle cream she got one year.

For families from other countries, gift-giving at school is not always customary. But many use the opportunity to share something from their culture. One parent brought Brubaker a multi-course, homemade Korean meal this week.

Overwhelmingly, though, gifts come in the form of concoctions based on sugar, butter and cocoa powder.

Before school started Friday, the Matsunaga front office was decorated with a few stuffed snowmen and a poinsettia. By 9 a.m., the desks were covered with packages of chocolate-covered hazelnuts, chocolate-covered macadamia nuts and chocolate-covered pretzels. There were Lindt chocolates, Lindor chocolates and Ghirar­delli chocolates.

Given strict restrictions on bringing baked goods for classroom birthday parties, parents unleashed their baking prowess on the adults. Faculty members nibbled from plates of brownies, homemade fudge, and tins of sugar cookies and peanut brittle.

“Back to the gym I go,” Brubaker said, walking by a table of chocolates and an open box of Krispy Kremes. She spends the start of the new year working off the calories, she said, and much of her vacation writing thank-you notes to families.

Gift-giving is not encouraged by the school, and staff members go to great lengths to make sure that it goes in many directions. Guidance counselors at Matsunaga — and elsewhere — spend the weeks leading up to winter break making a list of families who might need help because of an out-of-work parent or an illness. They want to make sure everyone will be well fed and warm over the holidays and that every child celebrating a holiday will have a gift to open.

Some parents donated toys and grocery store gift cards that could be given anonymously to other families. The school held a coat drive for children at another school and a “slippers for seniors” donation drive.

Teachers also sent students home with presents for their parents. For teacher Jade Liu’s first-grade class, it was a hand-colored calendar with a photograph in the front and all the family birthdays and special occasions filled in.

Liu also gave each child a wrapped book with a sticker that said, “Happy Holidays, From Mrs. Liu.”

The cheer did not stop in the classroom.

Bus driver Jennifer Brown pulled up to school with candy canes lined up on her jumbo rearview mirror and a “World’s Greatest Bus Driver” ornament and a macrame yellow school bus hanging in the window.

The gifts she liked best were the handmade cards. “Thanks for turning on the radio,” one said. Another said: “You’re nice.”

One cafeteria worker, who is diabetic, received several bags of candy. She gave a lot of it back to the children, slipping pieces onto their lunch trays.

Even the fifth-grade safety patrol guard who opens car doors in front of the school went home with a gift card from McDonald’s.

Anissa, with help from her mother, brought candles for her teachers, scented hand sanitizer for the secretaries and a box of assorted teas for the principal.

“They do a lot of nice stuff for me,” she said.

Michael Alison Chandler writes about schools and families in Northern Virginia.
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