Lesson from an 8th Grader
What kind of gifts do you usually get from your students? For me, it always depended on the age I was teaching and our student population. Teachers in the elementary grades typically get more gifts — from homebaked goods to cutesy ornaments or products from Bath and Body Works. Middle school teachers may not get as many gifts simply because each child had 5-6 teachers. When I taught Special Ed. classes many parents showed their appreciation for my work with lovely handcrafted gifts.
When my extended family gets together we benefit from the bounty of gifts showered on my niece and her husband who have taught in a large Christian school for several years. They arrive with all kinds of cakes, cookies, breads, and candy. Gift cards were another frequent gift for them. Having taught for so many years in schools with a majority of low-income students, their bounty of gifts from affluent families reminded me of the differences in our students.
I didn’t expect many gifts from my 8th graders but was always surprised by those gifts that came my way. Probably the best gift I ever received was the powerful lesson on giving from a student that still warms my teacher heart.
Sometime in the late fall my team of 8th grade teachers learned that one of our girls was living in a home with very limited resources. At Thanksgiving my church collected food for Thanksgiving dinners to give to families in need, so I approached Tierra about giving a bag to her family. She was a proud young teenager, and I was not sure how she would respond. I privately told her the bag would have a canned ham as well as canned chicken. Her response was, “That’s okay. We don’t need it.” Since I had the food in my car already, I gave it to the custodian who cleaned our wing of classrooms. Two of her girls had been our students, so we knew each other quite well and appreciated her hard work. She was delighted and truly overwhelmed with the food and the Kroger gift card.
The next day Tierra came up and told me her mother said they could use the food, especially the ham. With some quick thinking and planning with my teammates we figured out a way to assemble another bag of food. I told Tierra we could bring her the food after school to her house, but she clearly did not want us to come to her house. At our planning period Martha, the math teacher, and I headed to Kroger to buy some groceries. We kept thinking about the weight of the bags because she would have to carry these on the bus by herself. We had a great time shopping and planning. Another teacher dashed home to get a large duffle bag, again to respect the pride of this young girl. She would not want everyone on her school bus to know she had bags of food from teachers because her family could not afford them.
We had a couple of backpacks plus the duffle bag stuffed with food for a Thanksgiving meal ready for Tierra to take home by the end of the day. She was thrilled with them and was not daunted with taking three heavy bags by herself.
A little later in December we learned that Tierra’s family continued to be in need. We knew this because one of her friends brought her shampoo and hair products to school, products essential to an African American teenager. These two girls were part of a circle of friends who looked out for each other; as they often said, “I’ve got your back.” And they truly did. On Friday Martha gave Tierra a $20 bill which Tierra immediately changed into a ten and two fives. We wondered if that money would even make it home. Our team of teachers had taught students of poverty long enough to know that giving of money did not mean the money would be spent in a way that would meet our middle class standards.
On Monday Tierra was beaming with joy and a bag full of gifts. She delivered a gift to each of the 8th grade teachers with such delight. When she came to me, she wanted me to open it “right now!” And I did. She stood anxiously, waiting to see my reaction. It was the perfect gift for me – a Christmas figure of Santa with a bell inside. All year it had been my custom to ring a large bell (which sounded like a cowbell) in the hall to warn our students that class change was almost over. Tierra had found a replacement that fit the season and a gift she knew I would use.
The other teachers received gifts that just as carefully selected as mine, yet most of them were not in their original package. It appeared that she had found things at home (or someplace else) that she could give to her teachers. My first thought when I saw my bell, was that she had spent her cash on a gift for me. Later, as we compared our gifts I was not so sure she had used her money.
Wherever the gifts came from or how she got them is really not the point. The lesson I learned is that the giver of a gift receives the greatest joy. Tierra was clearly thrilled with the Thanksgiving food we gave her, but her joy the morning she delivered our gifts was bubbling over. Her joy made me stop and reflect on the whole transaction – putting myself into the shoes of one who lives in daily poverty. In the shoes of one who receives “charity” from teachers or churches. How that feels.
Growing up without a lot of money for extras, there were times when our family received generous gifts. I’ll never forget when I was in the 5th grade that a member of our church dropped by the house for a few minutes. When he left, Daddy called the three kids into the living room and showed us a 100 dollar bill. We were so impressed since we’d never seen such a large bill. In 1957 $100 went a long way for a family of five. But we never felt like we lived in poverty as children.
In the early years of our marriage Larry and I experienced some hard times when he was out of work and I had just started a new job. We received food and money to help with some doctor bills that were greatly appreciated. But we have never lived in poverty.
I told Tierra later in the school day that she had taught me an important lesson on giving. I think she was surprised, but I wanted her to know how meaningful her gift was to me. I can still see her beaming face when she told me to open her gift immediately. It is so easy to judge a person by our personal standards based on class or race or culture. Many years of teaching inner city children along with district training sessions in understanding poverty have helped me be more sensitive to differences in culture and class, but Tierra’s act of generosity made her lesson much more personal and tangible.
The lessons I’ve learned in the past few months about giving thanks to God for his blessings have made me more mindful of God as the gift-giver. His Word tells us in so many places to give thanks, so I know He wants to hear from us. Does He see us as ungrateful children when we take His gifts for granted. So many of my students failed to give a simple “thank you” for a pencil or paper. For some lacked teaching in good manners; for others it was about entitlement. Is this how God sees us? Does He NEED our thanks? I doubt that He does, but He knows that we will forget and take what we have for granted. The Israelites in the Old Testament complained about the food God gave them; they complained about pretty much everything!
Remember to count the joys during this hectic time of year. Take a deep breath! This craziness will soon pass. Enjoy moments and memories this season whenever you can.
The joys I’m counting today:
- the delight of a student when handing a gift to his or her teacher
- teachers who see children in need and don’t hesitate to dig into their pockets to provide what is needed
- churches and organizations who are mindful of the needs of the poor
- parents who are working hard, doing the best they can to put food on the table for their family
- Christmas break — essential for the mental health of all teachers
- teachers who spend hours preparing students for musical performances
- a God who gives me everything I need and will do more than I ask or imagine