Sunday, December 24, 2023

My Heart When My Preschoolers Say Thank You

My Heart When My Preschoolers Say Thank You

by Erin Pringle

When I taught college, I sometimes received small, kind gifts from my students--more frequently in the form of a handshake than a card, but sometimes a card--sometimes chocolate. The most common gift came the final day of the quarter or semester, when a student would approach my desk for the last time, lock eyes with me, and nod. I would nod back, and that would be our way of expressing appreciation to each other as well as acknowledging that our time together was now over.

Of course, growing up, I always made a Christmas gift for my teacher as well as an end-of-year gift. I remember huddling over the dining room table, newspapers spread out to protect the surface from the paint I brushed onto ornaments. The miniature and useless paint containers that tipped over more often than they stood aright. 

I don't remember when I stopped giving teachers presents. Junior high? High school?--as the number of teachers seen in a day increased, or once I began working after school, or when I spent tennis season on the courts or driving back from matches? Drama club, plays, musicals--the time it took to memorize lines and block stage directions equal to the time I once would have spent creating presents? In college, I don't remember giving gifts to my professors, but I was a nod-and-handshake sort of student. By graduate school, gifts would have seemed like extravagances; I did not go in for the extravagance. 

Maybe I simply don't remember writing thank-you notes to teachers in the involuntary, generous way that my mother had raised me to do--both through example and practice. I don't think so. 

However, when my son entered nursery school, I immediately initiated him into the custom of giving to teachers--helping him create gifts--pressing his inked baby fingertips onto a card, giving him a sheet of shiny jewels to stick onto ornaments, handing him a paintbrush and miniature nutcrackers to paint. Art, beauty, care--this is what you give to a teacher, this person who has patiently helped you understand the world and yourself better or in new ways. Made your life a little easier by helping you develop a skill, made your life a little harder by giving you new questions and imaginings. Whether that's developing your gross motor skills or introducing you to the decimal system, tying bows, the Trail of Tears.

But it wasn't until a handful of years ago, when I began teaching preschool and kindergarten that I became the gifted in the custom. And what a beautiful role that is, too. 

Sometime in the week before winter break begins, children begin arriving at school bearing gift bags, offering flowers, or clutching construction paper cards that hold their careful drawings and sometimes a gift card for coffee or to the local bookstore. A packet of flower seeds, a sturdy candle, a salt-dough ornament. The coloring-marker drawings of two balloon people, you and them, side by side. A heart drawn with such intent that you can feel the child breathing on the card as he drew, concentrating through the marker as he tried to remember the way to translate the shape he imagined into the shape he saw.

Like the former gaze and nod, the eye-lock and handshake, the best part of the holiday gift--even in preschool--is the moment the child comes through the door, looking for me, and hurries over before becoming suddenly shy as he or she offers the gift. Our shared smiles. Our giving and receiving. I kneel to see their eyes. 

Because they are learning the choreography of this custom--of giving--of what to say, what to expect, when to let go of the handles, how to gauge whether your teacher will offer a hug. How this hug is a different sort from the hugs received after disappointment, pain, tears, irritation. 

And I too am learning what it is for this child to give. The flicker of anticipation in her eyes. His steady answer when asked if I should open it now or wait until Christmas. What expectations they have formed in the time leading up to this moment. It is its own kind of surprise, the giving moment.

Then, we examine the gift together. I ask questions or point out details about the gift that are beautiful--generous--pleasing. They give their own observations, or none if they have gone shy or were more the delivery person for the parent-led gift. One child announces how pleased she is with the gift bag itself--a snowman, Miss Erin! 

To hell with whatever her mother put in the bag--besides that she doesn't remember making whatever might be in there, anyway--but, Miss Erin, do you love this snowman?!

Yes, I say. It's such a happy snowman!

Because it is. The happiest. And so is this small person, face tipped up in a grin, sunlight in her hair.

With my eyes, I say you are my love, my heart, my student. And I am honored that you would want to give this joy, this snowman's glossy cheer to me. I am so honored. Thank you.

This moment that the student tries to make tangible the appreciation of learning. 

This moment that the teacher tries to make tangible the appreciation of teaching.

Through handshake.

Through ribbon.

Through the pause that giving allows--for the student to give and the teacher to receive.

Before we leave each other for holiday, for family, home, so that we may return freshly to the classroom--to our friends and fellow teachers, to the tasks at hand, ready to discover a new day together.