I happened to be in the presence of another teacher opening up a student holiday gift yesterday. These gifts are usually homebaked goods, and over the years, we have developed expectations. There’s the family who makes homemade fudge, and with the exception of the one year they put raisins in it (why why why why why why why), they have obviously won. It’s stiff competition, too; homemade baklava often ties for first, and every year, we have new contenders that make us remember why calories are so much fuckforsaken fun.
Of course, there’s more to life than baked goods, right? (No)
I mean, then there are the families that give actual coffee. As in Lavazza in giant bags that aren’t found in stores anywhere and are thusly, scientifically, from Santa’s Village and nowhere else, actual-coffee. I once had a family gift me a platter of salmon sashimi straight from a restaurant distributor (the company does some of the five star whatevers in DC and is all impressive-craziness; they had connections. Sure/ok). Another family decided hey but maybe I should just have an extra $100 because maybe I need it (I very truly did).
Then there are countless handwritten cards and pictures and comics that tell me these kids didn’t mind being forced into holiday shenanigans this season. Come on, who willingly draws a violin with all the pegs and shitty strings and the bleeding unholy f holes and whatnot, with a ridiculously cute poem alongside it, unless they mean it. Come on. We are never shy on articulated, tangible, gratitude in this season, we merry teachers over here.
This year, I watched a fellow teacher open a card and pull out a scratch off lottery ticket. I watched him sit in a chair after the student left, holding that scratch off card in his hand. I watched him cross his legs, the worn-through spot on the sole of his work shoe catching the light for a split second, like a reluctant weakness. I watched him stare at this card, the vague, impossible, opportunity in it catching him in the holiday moment even as his shame caught up with him. I watched his face as he said, softly, “I guess I should scratch it off? How do these things work?”
I watched him fumble around for a coin. I watched him scratch it off, the hope shining through like a belligerent turd in an otherwise pristine yard. I watched his face as he realized nothing matched.
And I stomped out of the room and off to my next gig. Pissed. Pissed that someone gleaned we teachers needed money so desperately. Pissed that someone dared to passive aggressively suggest that the only salvation any of us had was in a literal statistical miracle, like say, a scratch off goddamn lottery card. Pissed that I had to watch a beloved colleague scratch that shit off with actual hope. Like that dollar meant something to him. Like that hope was real. Like the 2k that card never gave him would have helped him in any real way, anyway.
I was furious. I was hurt.
I was helpless.
And so I stomped home, and I stomped into my bedroom, and I sat there. Glowering at my everything; at my life. At my choices. At my inability to handle the subtle but perpetual slights humanity insists on doling out every day.
I woke up this morning and had my coffee in a sort of sullen stupor. I went to the store and ran into this teacher who smiled and chatted with me about how excited he was to visit his niece. His nine-year-old niece whose dad had suddenly left and who he was teaching for free because she loved the cello so much, and the gift of music was all he had to give her.
And I realized, what if this student had nothing but fleeting hope to give? What if she thought the potential of that dollar was best spent on a little hope? What if she doesn’t know her words, her care, are worth more than some scam in hope’s skin?
How is that not a beautiful gift, a sacrifice, and a reality, all in one?