A revolving musical hedgehog! How did you know?;Talkback;Opinion;Features amp; Arts

10th December 1999 at 00:00
Polish up those false smiles and fake tears of joy. 'Tis the season of goodwill - and that means gifts from grateful pupils

I don't mean to sound ungrateful, but just where are those shops that sell those must-have end-of-term presents for your teacher? They should be closed down. Thoughtful parents take their dewy-eyed children into them - and out they come, clutching achingly awful cutesy-type animals, usually in glass with sparkly bits. These are beautifully wrapped and the perils beneath safely hidden.

When approached by the proud child and parent, I carefully put the gift to one side and thank them profusely. I mean it too, their hard-earned cash going on an ingrate like me. Then they go and spoil it all by saying: "Open it now."

Luckily most teachers make good actors, but I certainly deserve one of those teacher Oscars for my performances over the years. Gwyneth Paltrow could take lessons from me. I gasp, I hold back tears, I feign delight and surprise, I tell them I am speechless. Often I am. I've had the lot - glass humming birds on a reflective mirror, camel keyrings, musical bears, pig-shaped soap. I've enthused over all of them. (I once taught in a British Forces school in Germany. Unwrapping presents was considerably easier there. Duty-free perfume and bottles of wine caused real tears of joy.) Some parents want real emotion - if you don't shed a tear over little Joe's special present, you're in for a hard time next term. Last Christmas a parent came to show me a special gift she had bought another teacher, and asked me to stand by in case she was overcome by emotion. I, of course, pre-warned my colleague and told her to think of some tragedy to fulfil the parent's need. She didn't really need any help. The unwrapping of a hedgehog in a rocking chair that slowly rotated to the theme music for Dr Zhivago was more than enough.

Lest you consider me a total cynic, my best gift came from a child who had watched all the other children in the class bring me presents. He had nothing. He slunk to his almost empty lunchbox and brought forth a half-eaten, half-melted chocolate bar with teeth marks still visible and thrust it into my hand. Those were genuine tears.

Children also always manage to buy the most inappropriate presents. Chocolates for the tubbiest teacher, a hairbrush for balding Mr Chips, and Biros for the secretary. Then there are the plaques with eulogies to teaching that come in all shapes and sizes and as desirable fridge magnets. My fridge is groaning under the strain. Some of the toiletries are guaranteed to bring you out in a rash and some of the edible gifts are well past their sell-by date. All given with love and generosity and sure to make you feel ever so humble.

What to do with all these gifts? Here are a few tips to the newly qualified on how to avoid putting that glow-in-the-dark tulip on the mantlepiece. Try to swap presents in the staffroom. Three bars of pineapple soap for a sea-shell necklace anybody? I'll give you my flying glass dolphins for the glitter hair slide. Failing this, bundle them up and take them to a charity shop far away from your school.

You could take a stall at a boot fair but only if you can guarantee none of your pupils' parents lives within a 100-mile radius. Recycle to aged aunts for birthdays and Christmas.

A final warning as you unwrap those presents this Christmas. The new millennium has opened up all sorts of opportunities for the truly bizarre and glorious end-of-the-century present. I am bracing myself for a rotating singing dome. You have been warned.

The writer, who wishes to remain anonymous, is the head of a Kent infants school

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