December 28, 2018—This time of year lots of emotional energy, thought, and treasure goes into thinking about, acquiring, wrapping, and presenting gifts to others. At its worst gift-giving for me feels like a commodification of a deeply personal act of caring for others. At its best gift-giving is a genuine and heartfelt expression of caring for others. I can be a bit Grinchy this time of year because more often than not it feels like the worst aspects of gift-giving dominate over the more generative personal connections that gift giving can embody. Buying and snagging the best deal seems to rule over the more holistic message of community, love, peace, and joy. I have a pair of Grinch socks and a matching T-shirt to express my underlying distrust of programmed and planned gift-giving. They are gifts from my family. I think they were trying to be funny, but I’m not sure. Below the humor there is a grain of truth. I can be a bit Grinchy this time of year.
Luckily there are deeper meanings to gift-giving that I can latch onto beyond the commercial definition that I dislike. No need for Grinch thinking or paraphernalia with these approaches to gift-giving. I am quite happy and joyously elfish when I think about and act on these more expansive meanings of gift-giving. All seems right in my world when I give or receive gifts as heartfelt expressions of care and concern for someone else. For these gifts, no purchase is necessary, just an open and genuine heart and sense of caring.
It is simply a precious and lovely gift to be in the presence of someone who is fully present to you. A person who has taken the time to slow down and reflect on what makes you uniquely you and why those characteristics inspire love and appreciation for the other. This level of attentive presence creates a sense of caring wrapped in the company of an open-hearted person who is taking the time to fully listen to you in a way that invites you into the abundance of your being. And what a gift it is when that invitation to consider the fullness of your humanity yields a quality of selfhood that was overlooked or perhaps temporarily forgotten. This is exactly what, I believe, the best teachers do. They gift their students with an active sense of presence that manifests itself as stillness and is enacted through the skill of deep listening. Students can give a similar gift to teachers when they treat teachers less as an external authority figure and more like a fellow human being. A person working hard every day, just like students, to be a better learner, educator, and person. This is a form of gift giving that can be exchanged daily. No special season or occasion is required for the gift exchange of attentive-presence.
I think Denise Levertov in her poem A Gift captures the ways that students gift teachers through the questions they ask. She writes: “You are given the questions of others/as if they were answers/to all you ask. Yes, perhaps/this gift is your answer”. The questions of students are much like the proverbial apple they leave on the corner of the teacher’s desk. A lovingly selected gift, nestled between papers to grade, soup cans full of pencils, and handouts for the next lesson. A well framed student-question, like an apple, stands out and invites the attention of the teacher. Ideally, the teacher will recognize the gift and treat it with the respect and attentiveness it calls for. Levertov employs the metaphor of a butterfly to capture the relationship between a teacher receiving the student’s question and the teacher’s response: “butterflies opening and closing themselves/in your cupped palms, trusting you not to injure/their scintillant fur, their dust”. What a lovely image. A student’s question as a part of the student, given with perhaps a tinge of vulnerability, trusting and hoping that the teacher will not injure the student through a careless act of inattentiveness or blatant bias. A gift so precious that it needs to be treated like dust that can be easily blown away and lost in the dark corners of the classroom. Gift giving of the self between teachers and students is risky business and it seems that more attention should be paid to the exchange.
There is another understanding of gift that I’d like to explore and consider. Teaching is a calling, a deep sense of purpose that finds its genesis outside the teacher. You cannot manufacture a calling. You can’t stroll into a store and purchase a calling with a credit card, no matter the credit limit. Students know the authentic teachers from the educators who are inauthentic in their pursuit of the identity of teacher. A calling is a gift from somewhere outside the teacher; a divine spark of self-knowing. It is a gift not a purchase. The expression that it is better to give than to receive applies in a paradoxical way to this understanding of gift-giving. A calling is a gift, something received, but its real worth is in the giving away of that gift to students. In fact, it is my experience that the more I give away my gift the stronger it gets. Without students I wouldn’t be able to refine my sense of calling and move closer to perfection. An authentic gift is never completely depleted in the act of teaching, unless some aspect of the teaching context limits the teacher’s capacity to integrate their gift into the classroom or lesson.
On the social calendar this is the time of year to consider gift-giving. It is well and good to slow down and think about the people in your life who have contributed to your growth. This is especially true, I think, for the educators who are both called to teach and who gift that calling to their students. For learners the question becomes, what kinds of gifts to give a teacher? Among the presents and apples I’m hoping that some really good questions will be asked by students. Inquiries to be held gently by the teacher because they have the capacity to invite the teacher more fully into their own identity. What a gift a student gives a teacher. And what a gift a teacher gives by listening with attentive presence to the student and their question.