By Peggy Wuenstel — It is a common theme for a writing assignment during this season of the year, “What is the best/greatest/most life-changing gift you have ever received?”
This has always been a difficult task for me. Christmases in my house were always joyful, full of redolent smells, jingling bells, and a house aglow with Christmas spirit and family togetherness. I have always loved the annual Christmas concerts, (Now politically correctly renamed Winter Sing) both as a performer and a spectator. Somehow the season does not begin for me until I hear the voices of young children. There is something about these smiling faces, some with the proverbial front teeth missing, in their holiday finery that calls my Christmas spirit forth.
But it has never been about the gifts. I remember a wonderful, much longed for navy blue Nordic print sweater, hooded and tunic length, that I wore to a premature death. There were the unexpected blue sapphire earrings and necklace, that I am now making an effort to wear on more occasions than the most special ones. There is a grainy black and white photo of me opening a phonograph, but to be honest, I think I remember the snapshot more than the actual event. This is not to say that my family was not generous and thoughtful in gift-giving. It was just not my favorite part of the holidays.
That changed a bit this year when I opened our chest of holiday ornaments. Many of the items within are gifts from children over the years. In the bottom drawer was a salt dough ornament that had valiantly outlived its predicted shelf life. It had disintegrated into a crumbly mass this year, stuck to the bottom of the drawer. For more than two decades, it had held the green image of a tiny handprint from a former student named Geoffrey. His mother made it for me when he was just over a year old, while I was his speech pathologist. We lost Geoffrey several years ago as a teenager, but his spirit was alive every Christmas on my tree. And even though the tangible keepsake is gone, the gift still remains.
It took longer to decorate the tree this year, and not just because I am slowing down a bit. I looked at each ornament that I hung on the tree a bit differently this year. I remember where most of them originated. The ones with a personal message penned from a student or family bring back the strongest emotions. Gil, who connects with others despite the challenge of being on the Autism Spectrum added “Nice Snowman, Mrs. Wuenstel” to his creation. It never fails to bring a smile. There are the commercial-made, but personally chosen items than mean so much. The angels with personal thanks and the things in purple in recognition of my favorite color show that I am known and appreciated by the givers.
That is when it the recognition dawned, why I can never remember my favorite gifts. The most meaningful moments of my Christmases, past present, and hopefully future, have been about the opportunity to give. Teachers are endowed with this opportunity every day of their working lives. It is what keeps us fresh, and motivated, and inspired. It is not about the paycheck or the benefits or the retirement package. Although these things are important, and need to be a true reflection of educators’ worth in our society, they are not WHY we show up ready to face a classroom each morning. We yearn to be known for who we are and what we do. We need to be appreciated for our commitment as much as for our skills and knowledge. It is so much more about what we give than what we get.
I read somewhere that if you measure your value by your bank balance, your accumulated possessions, and your physical attractiveness you will always be unhappy. Someone will always have more money and nicer things than you do. Someone will always be better looking. When I think about what has made my Christmases merry over my lifetime it has not been about what I have gotten, but what I have given. I remember bringing tears to senior’s eyes while caroling with the girl scouts. I relished decorating the house and setting the table. I remember my sons’ and grandchildren’s faces when they opened a carefully chosen gift. I will always cherish the joy with which students present a holiday gift. So now I can answer that thorny question: The greatest gift I have ever received is to be in a position to give.
I have the financial security to support causes and come to the aid of those in need. I can express my thanks to those I work with and who work for my welfare in the community. I have the education and drive to share my love of learning with children. I Teach.