By Rhonda Lanie, IPLI Mentor, Assistant Principal at West Lafayette Elementary
There is nothing like being in an elementary school during the holiday season. The hallways become filled with lights, holiday art, and writing. There is a buzz of excitement in every classroom as children make gifts and crafts and share with great detail what they hope to find under the tree on Christmas morning. Listening to children talk about flying reindeer, a man sliding down a chimney with a bag of toys just for them, and an elf magically moving around the house is priceless.
During this time of year, I often reflect on my time in the classroom and the joy my students brought me during the holiday season. However, my favorite part was when the students brought gifts. Not because I was getting presents, but because I loved seeing the glow on their faces and the anticipation of my reaction when I opened their precious treasure.
Every Christmas season, I think of the gifts I have received from children over the years. My favorite ones are those I know were made by their hands or those which they scrounged around the house to find just for me. While teaching in Houston, a student from a refugee camp joined my class. Her family came to the U.S. with nothing. They received shelter, food, and clothing from a local church. When sweet Mae arrived in my 4th-grade classroom, she stole my heart. Despite all she had been through, she was the most thankful, thoughtful, courageous, and hardworking child I had ever known.
That year, the day before Winter Break was like all others before. The kids came in with their bags, cards, and coffee mugs full of candy and excited demeanors as they piled their gifts on my desk; in walked sweet Mae with a larger-than-usual box wrapped in shiny gold paper. I had no idea what she could have in that shimmery box, nor the joy it would bring me for years to come. As was tradition, on this last day before Winter Break, we began our party at the end of the day. I never liked to make a big deal about opening gifts because many students didn’t have the means to buy anything, and some did not celebrate gift-giving. Hence, the opening occurred between the gift giver and me during inconspicuous times.
When it was time to open Mae’s gift, I called her over. I read the card, and as I began to rip the paper off the box, I noticed a picture of a toaster. Yes, a toaster. A white four-slotted Sunbeam toaster. A family with nothing to give felt the need to provide me with something well beyond their means. I hugged Mae and told her how much I loved the toaster and that I couldn’t believe it because our toaster was broken. Of course, our toaster was working fine, but that didn’t matter. When I got home, Mae’s gift immediately replaced the toaster on our counter. Every time I used it, I thought of her and her family. I thought of what her life must have been like in the refugee camp. I thought of the courage it must have taken to move to a strange country with nothing. I thought of how hard Mae worked and how she persevered. I thought of Mae’s beautiful smile and that she always had one.
As the years went on, I wondered how Mae was doing. I thought of her when I stuck my bread in one of those four slots. The toaster stopped working years ago, and Mae is now a grown woman, but my memories of her and many other children who have touched me in particular ways will forever live in my heart. As educators, we have made many sacrifices along the way; gifts of emotional energy, time away from our families, and, let’s not forget, sleep. We make these sacrifices without a minute of regret because the children are our most precious gift, and our work is our reward.
Merry Christmas, Mae!