My mother is a teacher. Every year, hordes of students gave her "teacher-y" gifts. Frames with pencils, wall plaques about best teacher, decorative rulers with cutesy 1+1=2, and more. When I was in high school, I noticed our Christmas tree had an apple theme, and I realized that my family never had to bake due to the wealth of cookies and cakes my mother received at the holidays.
It's all nicely meant, and graciously received. My mother was very appeciative, and felt compelled to display the items in her classroom or in our home. Most of all, she felt compelled to keep them.
When she and my stepfather downsized to a new house in their dream town, she purged, and told me she was amazed at how much stuff it ended up being, in the end.
I asked her what she thought of all of these gifts, and she said, in all sincerity, that they really weren't necessary.
I knew for sure they weren't necessary. To be honest, I don't think my mother is too keen on apples.
So when our turn came to ponder a teacher gift, I really went back and forth about whether to do it at all. In one class, a nicely organized mom coordinated donations from everyone for a hefty amount gift card. In another, everyone was doing something individual and I felt a little peer pressured to do something (especially when all the moms asked me every day, "What are you getting Mrs. So and so?").
If I buy gifts for people outside my family, then the boundaries get really blurry. Do I buy only for the teacher, and what about the director, assistant director, language teacher and music teacher? Them too? Or leave them out? Then what about the volunteers? All of the sudden I could easily be facing at least $50 to $100 in extra gifts. If I'm getting for teachers, it's to show my appreciation, and in that case, then what about the postwoman, garbage men, and so forth? Now I'm well over at least $100 and I can see clearly how people end up going into debt over the holidays, or must at least be rich enough to spend thousands (which I am not).
I remembered back to my mom, and know the heartfelt letters and drawings from kids were the ones that really meant the most to her.
So I started having the kids draw a card, and write a special message about how much their teacher means to them.
All of the sudden this year, that seemed like not enough. Or I suddenly lost my confidence about why that was a good thing to do. I don't know why.
Maybe it was because the other moms were once again talking about what to get the teacher...as if it was a foregone conclusion that we had to get something, something tangible. I'm sure if I'd said, "Oh we're doing a special homemade card," they would have reacted quite nicely about it.
But I felt guilty. Was that Not Enough?
Is a teacher gift necessary, obligatory, like tipping has become?
When out to eat, I understand that my waiter expects, period, at least a 15% to 20% tip. Sometimes I feel like the service is worth about no percent. But I tip anyway. When I asked people what they did about tipping, most said, "Oh, I just give 20%, isn't that what you're supposed to do?"
I might be one of the last dinosaurs who gives a merit based tip. I'll range from an offensive dollar or 5% or less to a fully appreciative 15-25% tip.
The complication in some situations is my lack of cash. I usually pay with my debit card. In this case, tipping extra people who add to the service (such as the hair washing person at the salon) becomes difficult. I understand how restaurants spread the tip among servers, bus boys, and bartenders, but I'm not too sure about places like hair salons. I think each is very different.
What about other people who provide service to me? Painters? Yard people?
I'm stretched simply paying for the service itself; I don't really have extra to ladle on top.
And yet...if I don't gift all the relevant people in the school, or tip or gift all of the people who provide a service to me, do I fall down the scale of Customers Who We Value and Like and Do Good for?
I listen to people who gift and tip simply everyone. "The garbage men LOVE me," says a neighbor, "They'll pick up anything of mine. I give them homebaked banana bread and a Target gift card every year."
I think of the times the garbage men have left trash at my house.
"I always tip the postman," says a friend, "And she never leaves my packages in the rain, or else she wraps them in plastic first."
I think of the sodden packages I've found on my front porch.
It feels awkward to me, paying or gifting everyone I come into contact with in the world. In some cases, it feels a bit like...bribing someone to do the job I'm already paying them to do.
I'm really not mean. Not really. I don't simply think people ought to do what they ought to do with no gratitude. I'm happy to pay for the service and thank them. I just don't like thinking I need to go beyond my actual means to provide gifts and tips to ensure that I get decent service.
It was the rare author who ever thought to thank me in his or her book, much less to my face. "Gee, I'm really grateful you took the poorly written total lack of organization with no facts checked manuscript I turned into you and turned it into a highly-polished well-regarded piece of work that earned me more money in a quarter than you received in a year." They certainly never gifted or tipped me, although they got a gift and card from me.
And I never expected it. I felt proud of doing a good job, and between that and my paycheck, it was usually enough (depended on the author and the project).
I'm not saying that teachers expect a gift. I'm not even saying anyone does. I'm just not sure. Perhaps they don't expect it, but perhaps some notice and mark its absence?
And I haven't even touched on the passing out of gifts to classmates. My kids came home from their last day of school with bags and bags of Oriental Trading Christmas themed junk and tons of candy, which has turned them into hellspawn for days. Not to mention, half or more of the candy and food had peanuts in it, which is a HUGE no-no in my peanut allergy house. While I appreciate the gesture, it has caused more trouble than enjoyment. And I didn't reciprocate. It never even occured to me to consider sending gift bags in for my children's classmates.
I understand you catch more flies with honey than vinegar. I'm all for that philosophy. I'm even more for letting people know how much I appreciate the job they do.
I can't help but wonder, though: Is gifting out of control? Or are these simply people with plenty of money and tons of holiday cheer and spirit? Can words work for that? Or must it be a tangible gift or money?
In the end, the biggest point for me is I can't afford to do this. But am I costing myself more by not doing it?
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By Julie Pippert
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