Lexi Derrickson, a Bethesda third-grader, labored for hours over her teacher's Christmas present this year. Scratch cookies made from all the good stuff -- flour, sugar, butter, chocolate chips, peanut butter and almonds -- are not that easy to stir, she discovered, especially if you're staying with your dad on weekends and he doesn't have "one of those blender things."
What will Kirsten Crabtree, her teacher at Wood Acres Elementary, think about her gift? Lexi has worried about this for several days. "I know she'll like the cookies. Well, actually, I'm not sure. I think she will like them." Her round face turns momentarily somber.
Oh, the anticipation -- and agony -- of baking, sewing, painting or buying a Christmas present for your teacher. Shaping candy cane ornaments out of flour, sugar and salt, snowmen out of buttons, reindeer out of pipe cleaners. Or standing in the shopping mall before endless shelves of bath products, completely overwhelmed by the sheer variety of soaps, oils and powders.
What if your reindeer ends up looking like a dog? Does your teacher prefer the scent of lavender or rose? What if that rich girl in the front row, the one whose scrunchies always match her sweater and socks, gives the teacher a day at the spa? The $5 mug you bought with your own money is going to seem mighty puny compared with that.
Not to worry about the mug, teachers say.
Most of them can't get going in the morning without a cup of coffee, so the odds are they'll be sipping from it long after Elizabeth Arden has faded from memory. Affluent parents sending teachers to exotic places may grab holiday headlines, but years after students depart from their classrooms, the presents teachers remember most are those that came from the children themselves.
Ruth Neikirk, a retired sixth-grade teacher, has a house in Arlington full of such items that she brings out during the Christmas season: a little angel needlepointed 20 years ago by a boy named Tom; a china shoe from a boy named Tucker four years ago; a holiday banner of felt glued together by a girl named Caitlin who is now a freshman at the University of Virginia.
During her 27 years of teaching, Neikirk made a point of writing on each Christmas gift the name of the giver and the year. At least a month before Christmas every year, her husband, William, feigning annoyance, pulls out the boxes from closets on all three levels of their home and, after their holiday display, slides them all back in. His load includes a box of gifts that over the years have broken into pieces. Ruth tells herself every year she'll repair them.
She makes no apologies for her collection. "I like having my students all around me," she says.
Teachers have but to mention that they enjoy one particular thing, chocolate, for instance, and by the time they leave for winter break they've gotten so many Hershey bars and Godiva truffles that they're giving them away.
When they don't say anything they still can be surprised. Three years ago, Lynne Kolkemeyer, who teaches with Crabtree at Wood Acres in Bethesda, was delighted to receive a pillow that had been cut out, stuffed and sewn by her student Melissa Longano and Melissa's friend. The pillow was not exactly square and its stitches not exactly straight, but it made the hard seat of her room's rocking chair a lot more comfortable.
Ginny Berkey, a middle school teacher in Eugene, Ore., was surprised one December to find a white Easter mug on her desk with the saying "Never count your chicks before they hatch." The student's mom dropped by later that day to explain that her son insisted that it made a perfect gift since the class had just spent four days discussing American proverbs.
The first year Alisha Colyer, a health instructor in a middle school near Columbus, Ohio, was teaching, she allowed a student having trouble at home to come to her room early in the morning to work in peace. "Last Christmas he brought me a bag filled with wonderful things," she says. "My favorite Pop Tarts, a Dr Pepper, some notebook paper and pencils" like the ones he was always borrowing from her.
The item that really got to her was a towel.
"You are forever taking care of me and helping to clean up my messes," he wrote in a note that accompanied his gift. "The next time you use the towel remember I appreciate everything you do for me!"
So many teachers and so many stories about kids who could have been written off but weren't: The Michigan girl who thanked her teacher in a card for treating her the same as the popular girls; the Florida girl, previously a slow reader, who was grateful for being encouraged to read great books; the boy from east Tennessee whose stained hands handed his teacher a sack of black walnuts; the emotionally disturbed boy in Oregon, constantly underfoot in homeroom, who presented his homeroom teacher last week with a light blue resin moose, whispering in her ear that he had paid for it with "$2 of my own money."
Ellen Berg, a middle school teacher in St. Louis, keeps a cheap plastic jewelry box in her home as a reminder, she says, "to keep trying even when it seems all is lost."
Rodney Kennedy, a mischievous kid with whom she had her share of battles, gave her the box two years ago, wrapped in newspaper. "He brought it to me while everybody was working," she recalls. "He sat and watched. I could tell it was important that I like it." Their relationship improved over time and so did Rodney's schoolwork.
The next year on a Sunday morning, sometime between when she was reading the newspaper and doing her grocery shopping, Rodney died after being hit by a car the previous night. Berg learned the news Monday in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
In the days that followed Berg hammered herself with questions. Had she treated Rodney respectfully? Had he felt safe in her classroom? The jewelry box suggested to her that she had and he did.
Sometimes boosts come years after a student has graduated.
Elizabeth Reynolds had been teaching middle and high school in Lansing, Mich., for 10 years when she got a phone call a couple of days before Christmas from a former student, by then in her early twenties. The young woman asked Reynolds to a holiday dinner and when Reynolds arrived, about 70 people had gathered to tell her thank you, many of them former students.
Reynolds was stunned because most of these guests had been labeled the "burnouts" at school all those years ago. The boys in particular had been pranksters, unloading crickets down the drop box at the school library, hanging hundreds of women's half-slips from the ceiling on the last day of school.
As they toasted their favorite teacher, they filled Reynolds in on the good lives they now led as autoworkers, lawyers, doctors, mothers and fathers.
"In teaching, we don't always receive immediate gratification or even an occasional thank-you," Reynolds says. "But times like this particular evening make it very worthwhile for me."
Lexi Derrickson need not have worried about Crabtree's reaction to her present, which was accompanied by a piece of white typing paper, folded exactly in half, on which Lexi had sketched a manger scene.
"Are these angels on the card? I love homemade cards!" Crabtree gushed with the signature enthusiasm of young teachers. Then she popped off the Tupperware container's top.
"Did you say these cookies have peanut butter in them? I love peanut butter!"
Would that we all had a third-grade teacher to give gifts to at Christmas.