Christmas of 1988 was my first year as a teacher, and the way things were going, it looked like it would be my last.
On a sweltering late August day, the interview for my first teaching job ended like this, “You can have the position, but you won’t last until Christmas.” The charge was to teach all subjects to a class of students, ages 7 to 13, in an impoverished area of Jacksonville, Florida. I would be the class’s third teacher in as many weeks. Out of financial necessity, I accepted.
I left the interview feeling overly confident and a bit smug. Never mind that I was only certified to teach high school English. Never mind that I knew nothing about managing a classroom of children with a host of unspecified emotional and academic challenges. I had seen To Sir, With Love ~ Mr Tibbs had nothing on me.
By December, I had given up every sentimental and idealistic notion about teaching. I had barely survived the semester. I don’t know if I felt more sympathy for myself or the misfit children banished to a trailer at the very edge of the school property with an inexperienced, unqualified teacher.
It was the day before winter break, and I was teacher-tired (a kind of tired only teachers can truly understand). My head pounded from rowdy children, holiday sweets, unfinished report cards, and my own ineffectiveness. The students were packing up their things when I noticed something on my chair.
I picked up a half-empty bottle of green perfume. “Whose is this?” I asked over the noisy class. I held it up and shouted, “Where did this come from?” No answer. Ernest, the twelve-year-old leader of the class, and my right-hand-man, swaggered to my desk. “Ronnie give it to you,” he said. “for Christmas.”
My heart sunk. These were children Santa routinely forgot. A few students had made me cards that day, but no one had given me a present. Ronnie had arrived in our class just before Thanksgiving. He got in a fight nearly every day and hadn’t turned in a single assignment. I’d barely had a chance to help him with his work.
I went to his desk, “Ronnie, did you give this to me?” He pretended not to hear me and started a shoving match with a classmate. I understood.
Watching the clock, the students quieted, as they did once a day, to hear the faint sound of the dismissal bell ringing from the main school building. They flew out the door, jumping over the makeshift stairs and railing. I caught Ronnie’s eye and mouthed, “Thank you.” It was the first time I’d seen him smile. I’ll never forget how that sweet grin glowed against his ebony skin.
In the silence of the classroom, I picked up the perfume bottle, wondering if Ronnie’s grandmother noticed it was gone. I lifted the lid and inhaled the strong scent. Carefully, I placed the bottle in my top desk drawer where I would see it often.
With the fragrance of Emeraude lingering in the air, I put my head on my desk and sobbed tears of exhaustion, defeat, hope, and resolve. It was in that moment that I accepted I was a teacher, and I silently vowed to become the best I could be.
That was Ronnie’s gift to me that Christmas ~ a gift I pray I passed on to the thousands of students I had the privilege of teaching the next 25 years.
“It is not the gift, but the thought that counts.” ~ Henry Van Dyke
Think On These Things ~ Alicia