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A Snake, A Sandwich And A Glass Eye: Teachers Share Memorable Gifts From Students

Paige Vickers for NPR

It's the time of year when schoolchildren and, let's be honest, sometimes their parents, face a big decision: what gift to give their teacher for the holidays. There's the old standby, an apple on the desk. Gift cards are also convenient; and homemade cookies can earn bonus points. But many students get far more creative.

In November, the NPR Ed team asked teachers around the country to share their stories of memorable gifts from students. We received more than 800 responses, ranging from laugh-out-loud funny to touching and thoughtful to just plain weird. Here are a few of our favorites.

"All she had to give"

Pamela Brashear set up the story just like any other Christmas tale. It was Dec. 17, 1999, "the last day of school before Christmas break."

Brashear was just a few years into her teaching career at an elementary school in Viper, Ky., and a quiet girl from a tough home presented her with a gift: a small, faded purse with a single penny in inside.

"I knew in my heart that this gift was most likely all she had to give," Brashear said. She tried not to tear up as the student insisted she keep it.

Over two decades of teaching, Brashear said she's kept all her gifts from students. "But this one has a place of honor under my Christmas tree every year. It reminds me of why we give gifts to others."

50 pounds of spuds

The mere volume of potatoes was amazing. ...

After Margaret Johnson moved to Idaho for a job as a professor, she learned about the state's hospitality by way of russet potatoes — 50 pounds of them. Johnson told us that a senior in her English class at Idaho State University had a family farm and gave her a share of the bounty.

"The mere volume of potatoes was amazing, and more than I would eat in a couple of years," she wrote. "I shared the box with all the faculty in my department."

"Michelle The Pig"

Michelle Fyfe is a high school English teacher and cross-country coach in Fayetteville, Ark. At the beginning of one season, she said, a runner on her team named his pig after her. That fall, "Michelle The Pig" won a blue ribbon at the county fair. And at the team's end-of-season banquet, the student presented Fyfe with a gift: 15 pounds of bacon and pork cuts.

"Since your pig won," the student said, "you get to keep her."

While it was odd to eat something named after her, Fyfe gave the gift top marks.

"No one has ever really thought out that long of a gift," she said. "That was what was so touching about it."

The gift of crude oil

Elementary school teacher Susan Zell once received a jar of crude oil from a fourth-grade student. "This gift made me smile with gratitude," she wrote to us.

The student's parent worked in oil drilling, and the crude perfectly complemented Zell's lessons on natural resources. She cherishes it to this day.

"It is sitting in my fine china cupboard," she wrote. "That's how special it is to me."

Literal eye-poppers

Two teachers sent stories that take eye-popping to the literal.

It was kind of gross but really kind of wonderful.

The first is from special education teacher Denise Breyne. It was her final year teaching at an alternative school in suburban Chicago, and her students had gathered around to say goodbye. Breyne said one of those students had a glass eye from a childhood accident. When it was his turn to talk, he told her, "'Denise, you know that song that goes, 'Every time you go away, you take a piece of me with you'? Well, here."

He walked over and popped out his glass eye. Luckily, Breyne already had tissues in her hand.

"It was kind of gross but really kind of wonderful," she told us.

He had taken his eye out in class before, and while it distressed his classmates, Breyne said it made her laugh so hard she cried.

For her, the glass eye gift represents the power of acceptance. And, yes, if you're wondering, she kept it.

"Yeah, it just sits in a box in a drawer."

Shannon Morago sent in a strangely similar story from Arcata, Calif. But this time, the eye was real.

According to Morago, when her biology student had to have an eye surgically removed for a medical condition, the student insisted on saving it for Morago. The student brought the eye to class in a small specimen jar filled with clear liquid. It made her "a little bit squirmy," Morago told us, but she kept her composure as students passed the eye around.

Morago didn't keep the eye, but her student did. And years later, that student became a biology teacher herself — a biology teacher who sometimes uses her old eye in class.

A giving student gifts The Giving Tree

Several years ago, Keira Durrett taught a preschooler in Easthampton, Mass., who was learning to read.

Durrett told us that before moving on to kindergarten, the student and her family gave her a copy of Shel Silverstein's The Giving Tree. The student had signed the inside with red crayon. Also inside was a CD — a recording of the student reading the book.

Durrett recently listened to that CD for the first time in years.

"This child is now a senior in high school," Durrett wrote us. "But in my mind she will always be a 5-year-old with an enthusiasm for learning."

An envelope with a tasty surprise

Jill Lowery, a grade school teacher in Des Moines, Iowa, sent a simple, sweet story: "I was given a peanut butter and jelly sandwich made with one slice of bread, folded in half, stuffed in a plain white envelope."

I was given a peanut butter and jelly sandwich made with one slice of bread, folded in half, stuffed in a plain white envelope.

It was from a first-grader, and the bread was a little crusty by the time Lowery got home. But she wrote, "I was amazed by his ability to think so sweetly of me."

A memorable set of teeth

Shannon Swain told us about a student she had at a correctional facility near Danville, Calif. She described the student as "gray and grizzled, gruff and grumpy" and told us he rarely smiled because he was embarrassed about his missing teeth.

"That began a bureaucratic adventure and a far-ranging search for free or very low-cost dental care, which we finally arranged at a dental college nearby," Swain wrote.

Swain ultimately succeeded in getting that student a set of dentures, turning his scowls into beaming smiles.

Years after she left that job, a small, puzzling package arrived at Swain's parents' house, where she had been living when she worked at the correctional facility. It included a set of dentures, along with a note: "Dear Teach. I got some new teeth and thought you might like to have these, cuz it was the best present I ever got."

A snake for a science lover

The way to elementary school teacher Lori Renner's heart is with dead snakes. Renner told us that several years ago, a third-grade student returned from a family vacation in Florida with a dried-up dead snake in a plastic bag — just for her.

Renner wrote, "The fact that this student ... found a dead snake fascinating enough to bring home from a vacation, and then pass on to me, because she knew I would love it, makes me so so happy."

The snake has followed Renner to three different schools around Seattle.

"I treasure it because it reminds me of how wonderfully thoughtful young children are."

Copyright 2018 St. Louis Public Radio

Ryan is a reporter on the education desk at St. Louis Public Radio, covering both higher education and the many school districts in the St. Louis region. He has previously reported for public radio stations WFYI in Indianapolis and WRVO in upstate New York. He began his journalism career working part time for WAER while attending Syracuse University. He's won multiple reporting awards and his work, which has aired on NPR, The Takeaway and WGBH's Innovation Hub. Having grown up in Burlington, Vt., he often spends time being in the woods hiking, camping, and skiing.