Many years ago, I received one of my most treasured Teacher Appreciation gifts from a student. It was an unusual gift, but one that I still have. That particular school year, I received many lovely gifts from my students: a mug from Starbucks, a gift card from a local bookstore, a small potted plant. I appreciated each gift and the hand-made cards and sentiments that went with them.
And, then…there was that unusual gift from Mikey*.
Let me tell you a little about Mikey. Mikey came into my first-grade classroom with his shoes untied, his shirt untucked, and a sly little grin on his face on a sunny September morning in 1999. He was tall and thin, with a mischievous look about him. Mikey was a bit of a tough guy, and as I learned pretty quickly, he had a rough and erratic home life.
Mikey was inconsistent in the classroom, alternating between being a diligent worker and causing a complete ruckus. To say the least, Mikey was not the easiest student to have in your classroom. Most days, he challenged me as a teacher. Some days, he couldn’t manage his behavior enough to stay in the classroom. But, some days, he flashed a shy smile of understanding at me and it made my heart leap.
During the spring of 2000, the school was abuzz with activities for Teacher Appreciation Week. The parent association brought in pizza lunch for the school staff. Balloons decorated the office and hand-made cards decorated the hallways. Daily gifts appeared on my desk.
Mikey had been a little glum during that festive week, which wasn’t an unusual occurrence for him. That Friday afternoon, after the hallways had mostly cleared, he approached my desk with something held tightly in his fists. Without a word, Mikey slowly unraveled his fingers, outstretched his arms, and presented me with a surprising gift: a little old lady action figure who kicked her leg when a lever on her back was pressed. I knew only that this figure was from a television cartoon and that it was a favorite toy of Mikey’s. Ms. Finster – I came to learn that that was the character’s name – was an authoritarian teacher who loved to dole out harsh punishments. She wasn’t the most physically attractive woman, and she certainly didn’t have the most attractive personality.
At first, I wasn’t sure what to make of this “gift” from Mikey. Was he trying to tell me that I was too harsh with my students? Did he perceive me as an authoritarian teacher? Was he trying to tell me I was unattractive? My own insecurities as a newer teacher began to pop up. But, then, I realized that this little Ms. Finster action figure was one of Mikey’s prized toys. He wasn’t trying to insult me or send me some subliminal message about my teaching; Mikey was trying to show me that he, during this Teacher Appreciation week, appreciated me. While others brought me flowers and gift cards, this was the only thing Mikey had to give me.
I gave Mikey a big hug and thanked him profusely for the gift. I took the gift home with me that night. Ms. Finster rode in the cup holder of my car and my husband and I played with her all night, using the kicking lever to have Ms. Finster knock over cups and fling paperclips across the table. We joked about how I should wear a yellow polka-dotted dress to school the next day and kick anything or anyone who made me feel upset or frustrated.
The next morning at school, Mikey bounded over to my desk and inquired about where Ms. Finster was. I assured him that she was fine and comfortable at my home. He sighed a visible sigh of relief knowing that Ms. Finster was safe. The next day, Miss Finster again took a ride in the cup holder of my car, and when Mikey walked in that morning, he lights up as soon as he saw Ms. Finster standing on the corner of my desk.
From that day forward, Ms. Finster stood at attention on my desk. Every so often, Mikey would walk by and press the kicking lever or gently touch the little action figure. On the last day of school, Ms. Finster again rode as a passenger in my car. She spent the next few years on the mantle of my fireplace, causing me to pause and wonder how Mikey was doing. Ms. Finster eventually found herself packed away in a memory box. In that box are some old family photos, my travel souvenirs, a book of old war ration coupons that belonged to my great-grandfather, my high school diploma…and Ms. Finster, the kicking action figure. I still think of Mikey often and hope that he overcame the obstacles he faced, and I hope he somehow knows that Ms. Finster is still safe with me.
*Name changed to protect privacy
Tammi Brandon is a Master Instructor and Education Consultant with Brainspring Educator Academy.
Bring Brainspring Orton-Gillingham multisensory instruction to your classrooms, transforming struggling K-12 readers into skilled learners through our effective, evidence-based approach.
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