I once taught briefly at a school with many affluent students. That year, just as every other year, I began my English classes with a suggested journal entry on “the worst thing that ever happened to you.” Most of my students said things like “the worst thing that ever happened to me was when my mom took my DVD player out of my room” or “the worst thing was when we had to leave Disney World early because of bad weather.”
Winter holidays in that school were interesting. I received so many gifts, it took me three days to get them all home. I could have opened my own Bath and Body Works store. I had several cashmere scarves and numerous gift certificates to fine restaurants. My own children would wait anxiously at home to see the loot. It was quite embarrassing.
When I began teaching remedial reading at a different school, things began to change. The journal entries read “the worst thing that ever happened to me was seeing my brother get shot” and “the worst thing was when my dad went to jail.” No DVD players in these bedrooms. No flights to Florida. And on the last day before holiday break, I would hear many bittersweet comments such as, “I’ll bring you a present after Christmas when my grandma gets paid...”
But I did get one gift while in that school that holds more meaning for me than all the rest combined. Here’s one of my own journal entries from that December:
Well, today I received my first ever gift from a student in this school. Nikki, a sweet but troubled little seventh grader, brought me a haphazardly wrapped box this morning. I opened it, expecting some candy or a handwritten note. Instead I pulled out a little music box, white and pretty, with a winter scene on the top. I opened it and immediately my rambunctious last-day-of-school-before-break class became totally quiet as the sound of Silent Night tinkled across the room.
In the box lay a single, tiny nail file. Nikki began trying to explain why she put a nail file in there, but I talked over her, telling her how badly I needed one. I told her that I loved the music box and gave her a hug. As she walked away, she turned and quietly said, “I used to listen to it when I was a little girl.” I silently gasped. Nikki had given me her music box. She had wrapped something meaningful to her, placed the only thing she could find in it, and handed it to me with more pride than I’ve ever seen her display over anything.
My first thought as I look at the music box sitting in my den tonight is how important this gift will always be to me. My second thought is that I don’t know why anyone would ever choose another career. Times are hard for teachers—we’re asked to do more and more with less and less—often blamed and seldom thanked. But when I think of Nikki and her precious gift, I know we are truly blessed.
And I know, down at the heart of it all, this is why we do what we do. This is why we spend our weekends planning our weeks, why we tackle mountains of paperwork every day, and why we sometimes just take the blame and forget about being thanked. It’s because of the children in our classrooms who give us pieces of themselves, in exchange for the part of us we share with them—Christmas pieces, that we gather all year long.
A previous version of this story was titled “Christmas Pieces.”