Plaster-cast reindeer, pungent perfume and musical ties - when it comes to gifts from pupils, it's definitely the thought that counts. As teachers throughout the land prepare for the season of kitsch, Harvey McGavin meets one for whom no gift is too tacky
The curtain has come down on 1,000 nativity plays, cards have been exchanged between classmates, and the school halls where carols rang out stand silent. It's the end of term, a time when some children like to show appreciation of their teacher's efforts by presenting a small gift.
As he waves his pupils off on their holidays, Pete, a primary school teacher in Birmingham, can't wait to unwrap his presents. But he has an ulterior motive for wanting to know what they've got him. Pete doesn't want anyone to know his full name, because over the holidays he'll be making a mockery of this tradition. Pete collects bad Christmas presents. The tacky, the kitsch, the cheap and the nasty all find a home on his website, Cheesy Gifts for Teachers, "a shrine dedicated to exhibiting all those wonderful gifts children give to their school teachers as birthday or Christmas presents, or at the end of the year, or just because they love them".
It all started a few years ago, when Pete was sitting with colleagues after school on the last day of term. "Loads of us had been given lots of tat," he recalls. "Any sensible teacher would have gone home. But we just hung around taking photographs of these things."
Pete, an IT specialist who runs his school website, assembled an online gallery of some of them, accompanied by his own pithy commentaries. So far, almost 12,000 people have logged on to see end-of-term offerings such as scary Santa ("Rather than exuding feelings of joviality and merry frolics, this fearsome apparition radiates evil and malevolence"), a lascivious looking Christmas pig, and the "miraculous two-in-one design" of a pair of candlestick-shaped candles. And there's plenty more where they came from.
Over the holidays he'll update the site with the several sackfuls of gifts he and colleagues have received. Since moving to a new school three years ago, Pete's been able to be a bit more open about his pastime. "My new headteacher knows - she thinks it's wonderful. All the staff here get involved, whereas in my previous school I had to hide it away; some of the presents were from governors."
Bizarrely, he even received two Christmas presents at the end of summer term, a huge ice skating scene and a model Rudolf that produces droppings.
Supremely inappropriate, yet tacky enough to make it into his gallery of rogue presents - isn't he afraid his pupils might have rumbled him? He doesn't think so. "They've no idea," he says. His own mother doesn't know about the website but she is the grateful recipient of some of Pete's unwanted items. "She loves all those plaster owls and cats."
Most teachers have their own horror stories of musical ties, grotesque ornaments and pungent cosmetics or aftershave and can see the humour in Pete's enterprise. But not everyone sees the funny side, and he has received several emails complaining that it is not in the Christmas spirit.
"The site is in no way meant to be malicious," he says. "Teaching is a deadly serious occupation and you've got to have something to laugh at. My colleagues and I are genuinely touched by the generosity of the children we teach." Teaching in an inner-city school, he's aware that some families struggle to make ends meet, and fancy presents for teachers are not top of their list. "The old saying most definitely stands: it's the thought that counts."
Alcohol, chocolate and Pringles crisps are his favourite presents, but the best gift ever was a pupil's poster-sized cartoon drawing of his Year 6 class. "It was perfect, it must have taken hours. It even had a magnificent rendition of the class nutter - the sullen expression on his cartoon face was spot on."
For a Year 6 teacher, the end of year also marks the end of his or her class's primary school, so some parting gifts have added poignancy. "A few years ago a child bought me a copy of the song 'Angel', by Shaggy, her reason was that she felt that over the year I'd been like an angel watching over her." Last year he was even given a hot bacon sandwich. "Children figure out their teacher's likes incredibly quickly," he says.
Perhaps Pete's own obsession with cut-price Christmas gifts can be traced back to an incident in his childhood, when, as a seven-year-old, he saw beauty in a small plastic robin decorating the Yule log his mother served up for tea. "I remember carefully removing the robin, wrapping it up in a tiny Christmas paper parcel and giving it to my teacher, Mrs Long, as a present. I remember her being very touched at the time she opened it, but I often wonder what she was really thinking."