“Grumpy Git!” says Marcus, bouncing up and down in the face of my incomprehension. “Do you get it, Mr Eddison?”
I shake my head in confusion.
“Grumpy Git!” he persists, desperate for me to understand. “It’s called Grumpy Git!”
Slower than a snail sliding home from the Allotment Society Christmas Social, the glow of enlightenment shows across my face.
“Hang on just one minute, Marcus,” I reply with mock outrage. “Are you saying that this four-pack of ale is a subtle reference to my character? Do you mean to say I am a grumpy git?” While Marcus rolls around the carpet area laughing, I open up my next gift.
It is “From Thomas to the World’s Greatest Teacher”, and turns out to be two pairs of socks depicting Homer Simpson indulging in hedonistic seasonal traditions. I remove my old socks and model my new ones around the classroom with my trouser legs rolled up.
And so it is every year. Children love to give Christmas presents to their teachers. And whether their gifts are cheap, cheerful or just plain cheesy doesn’t matter. It’s a very enjoyable and entirely innocent tradition.
In my experience, parents are not trying to buy “educational advantage” when they send their children to school with a gift for the teacher. But they are looking to get something in return, and, over the years, I’ve discovered that it’s usually one of the following:
Guilt can be an extremely powerful force for giving. For example, the bottle of merlot that I received from Ethan’s mum was, by her own admission, an alcohol-based apology for inflicting her son on me. Of course, she is not the first parent of a behaviourally challenging child to attempt to compensate me in this way and, hopefully, she will not be the last.
A competitive nature can often drive parents to commit some powerful acts of generosity. For instance, why did Mercedes’ mum turn up with a box of gift-wrapped Belgian chocolates in a Waitrose carrier bag? Was it to reward my efforts (which she’s spent the whole term denigrating) or to impress the other parents? I suspect it was the latter, but who cares about motives when chocolates taste this good?
A good night’s sleep
Sleeping is a lot easier when you don’t have a niggling fear that you’ve missed someone off your Christmas present list. Giving too many gifts is better than giving too few, which is why parents like Katrina’s mum never fail to turn up with a small, inexpensive token of their appreciation. “Just a little thank you,” it says on the label. Inside, there is a modest gift of the sort that teachers feel comfortable accepting. After all, you can never have too many boxes of Maltesers, mugs, pens, diaries, magnets, cuddly toys, key rings...
A quiet life
Because it’s easier to say “yes” than to say “no”, gifts can be given to you by the most unexpected people. Did Ryan’s mum really want to get me a fridge magnet or was she nagged into it? I suspect the truth is that he wore her down with repeated requests. That’s what he does when I tell him that he can’t make a third visit to the toilet in less than half an hour. If it proves any consolation to Ryan’s mum, she should know that from now on, every time I go into the kitchen I will be reminded that I’m her son’s “No 1 Teacher”.
But sometimes, I can’t help but wonder whether some of my presents have been bought with less-than-merry motives.
The school is empty and in total darkness. Autumn term is complete. I am halfway down my second bottle of Grumpy Git when I hear a bell chime.
Chilling thoughts arrive uninvited into my head. What if Marcus’ comment wasn’t a joke? What if he and his mum were really trying to tell me something with their choice of gift? And what if other parents and their children were doing the same thing, but in more subtle ways? Could there be a hidden message in every single one of their presents? One that tells me exactly what kind of teacher they really think I am?
Why did Serena’s mum buy me Arctic Fresh deodorant and shaving foam? It is true that there have been days when (because of longstanding commitments at the local pub) I have run late in the morning. I confess that in order to get into class on time, I have once or twice gone without having a shave and a shower. Now the horrible truth rises up like a spectre in front of me. Do parents think I have a personal hygiene problem? Should I hold my hand up to being whiffy or will that just make the situation worse?
What made Thomas’ mum buy me Homer Simpson socks? I have reindeer socks, too. And a “Li’l Elf” hat with large ears attached. And why did Leanne give me a tie with a flashing Rudolph on it? Does her mum think I’m so lacking in taste and style that I’m actually going to wear it on a Christmas night out? Even as I think these thoughts, a booming, disembodied voice whispers the awful truth in my ear: “Too bloody right you are.”
Lying to boost a child’s self-esteem is second nature to primary teachers. We applaud every meagre effort and flourish Super Stickers like they’re going out of fashion. Was it really only a week ago that I went into raptures over Demi’s wax-resist painting of a Christmas candle (after Jordan had made her cry by saying it “looks like a willy”)?
But what if the parents are playing the same sort of game? I look at my new “Top Teacher” mug. Would parents really patronise my professionalism with overzealous praise?
Is it a hallucination or a trick of the light? Surely Claudette’s parents are too young to have an 8-year-old daughter? But then if Claudette’s mum and dad look too young to be parents, perhaps I look too old to be a primary teacher. Why else would they buy me a jar of mint humbugs?
After three bottles of Grumpy Git, my paranoia has increased. Now I am haunted by thoughts of murder. What if the parents who gave me chocolates and alcohol knew about my type 2 diabetes and hatched a plan to hasten my decline? Why did Tamara’s mum buy a male teacher a bunch of flowers while he’s still alive? Hasn’t her daughter told me several times to “drop dead”? And why did Jason’s mum wrap up super-strength painkillers with a miniature whisky? Was it meant to be a joke, or does she hope I might overdose on them?
This Old Git is a bit stronger than I realised. Halfway down bottle number four, my dark mood lifts, and I’m suddenly filled with the Christmas spirit. It is prompted by thoughts of Nathan. Now it really would have been spooky if his mum had sent me a gift. Sometimes she doesn’t even bother to send Nathan, or remember to take him home again.
I could tell immediately that Nathan had wrapped it himself. What he lacks in wrapping skills, he makes up for with enthusiasm. “Nice wrapping paper,” I said, very carefully making sure not to reference the fact that it looked suspiciously like the green foil we had used for our Christmas tree art project.
It took a while to open the present, thanks to the industrial amount of masking tape he’d used, but it was definitely worth the effort. “Wow, this is just what I need; a set of gold and silver marker pens!” I cried.
While Nathan beamed, the other children started to speculate on how he might have acquired this rather familar gift. “Isn’t it thoughtful of Nathan to get me an almost identical set of pens to the ones that went missing from my drawer yesterday?”
An element of doubt persisted. “I said, isn’t it thoughtful of him, everybody?”
There was a murmur of agreement. After all, it is the season of goodwill.
And so, as this longest of school terms draws to a close, I would like to recall the final pledge of Ebenezer Scrooge and declare that from now on, “I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.”
It is a sentiment worth drinking to. Or it would be, if the last of my Grumpy Git hadn’t mysteriously spirited itself away.
Steve Eddison teaches at Arbourthorne Community Primary School in Sheffield