To teacher, with love: Students' holiday gifts memorable, sweet, unusual

By Sharon Noguchi

San Jose Mercury News


On the day before Christmas break, my students gave to me:

A disoriented mouse. Pre-tasted goodies. A single gold earring (the librarian got the other). And a marriage proposal — with mom's borrowed jewelry to try to seal the deal.

The week preceding holiday break is gift time at schools, as students proudly and shyly bring wrapped and beribboned presents to their favorite teachers, secretaries and crossing guards. Elementary school teachers call it "mug week," when they receive multiple variations of ABC- and apple-themed coffee mugs.

There are the favored presents: gift cards, movie passes, homemade lunches. And the ones guaranteed to be saved: hand-written letters from parents.

And then there are the other items. Elizabeth Bliss recalled a third-grader at Booksin Elementary in San Jose, Calif., who was sad because she had no money for a gift. Bliss explained that presents could be a card, poem or even "a stuffed animal that already had been loved and could go visit another person."

So on the last day before winter break, the child brought a wrapped box with holes in it. "I made a big deal and hugged the little girl," said Bliss, now manager of parent education at the San Jose Unified School District.

She carefully opened the box, and inside was a seemingly drugged baby mouse.

"My first reaction would have been to scream," Bliss said, but seeing the child's smile and sparkling eyes, she said instead, "Oh, how adorable!"

Dubbed Peter Pancho , the mouse turned out to be Panchita (a female) and returned to the class in a cage as a pet.

No matter the gift, teachers said, it's essential to always express surprised appreciation. Even, Palo Alto teacher Phillip Done said, for the plates of cookies sampled on the way to school. The surprise part was easy for the plate of cupcakes with the frosting licked off, said Done, a 21-year veteran, who's just written a book, "Close Encounters of the Third Grade Kind."

"You say, 'Thanks so much, how nice! and 'Did you make these?'" he said.

And, he advises, unwrap the gift in class because the kids are dying to know and because, in fact, you never know what's inside. Once he tossed a See's candy box in the freezer, only to unwrap it months later and find ... a tie.

Other memorable gifts for teachers include:

--A plastic electric clock, sprayed gold and adorned with a bare-breasted mermaid and grape clusters, which, after 20 years, San Jose Unified teacher Christine Austin still exchanges back and forth with her sister as a joke.

--A homemade card with $2.75 taped inside, saved from lunch money after the student had passed on the meal that day.

--A wooden chair ornament decorated with books, given to Kimberlee Lawson in 1999. When Lawson, a physical education teacher at Willow Glen Middle School in San Jose, went to write the student's name and year on the bottom, there was another child's name and "1987" written on it. The child's mother had been a teacher and was re-gifting a present.

"To this day, it is one of my favorite Christmas ornaments," Lawson said.

Teachers also fondly remember the thoughtful gifts.

On the last day before vacation, one mother brought teacher Pat DeWhitt a pan of lasagna, salad and garlic bread. "My family enjoyed a really nice meal at the end of an exciting and tiring day," said DeWhitt, who now teaches science at John Muir Middle School in San Jose.

Sabrina Koshiyama , a third-grade teacher at San Jose's Lowell Elementary, also appreciates the food and "amazing jewelry and clothes."

Another teacher rule: Always wear what your students give you.

Well, except for the Santa boxer shorts that a student gave Done one year.

Except for the gold-and-diamond wedding ring a second-grader brought Johanna Latz , a teacher at Booksin Elementary in San Jose. "He wanted to marry me and live with me forever."

She said no.

"We had a phone call from the mother soon after, asking for her jewelry back. It turns out, when he was sadly rejected by me, he gave other jewelry, chains, necklaces and bracelets to the girls on the bus. We had to call all the girls' parents and ask that they send the jewelry back.

"Mother came to school personally to get her valuables," Latz recalled. "I hope she also purchased a jewelry box with a lock."


(c) 2009, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).