One Question Quiz
Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

SocietyDecember 12, 2023

What do you give your kid’s teacher to say thank you?

Image: Archi Banal
Image: Archi Banal

For when flowers or chocolates don’t feel quite enough. 

“I was thinking about a trip,” says my son. “To the moon.”

“What about flowers?” I suggest. “Chocolates? A book?”

My son frowns. His face is small, skeptical. “Or superpowers,” he says. “If we gave her superpowers then she could get anything she wanted.”

“That’s true,” I say. “Or we could get her flowers?”

“How is that enough?” he says, plainly. 

He’s right, of course. How can that be enough?

What do you buy a teacher to say thank you?

I still remember my first day of school. My teacher shook my hand at the classroom door. He was too tall for the doorway and had to stoop. He smiled at me. An open, welcoming smile. (He was painfully nervous that day, he told us years later. It was his first teaching job and he had to face thirty of us kids, plus thirty sets of parents.)

“Hello! It’s so good to meet you, Gemma.”

I remember those words. That handshake. The fact that he knew my name. 

I sat next to a dark-haired boy at the back of the classroom. Another introverted melancholic. We sat together all year. He taught me how to do sums; I taught him how to draw a horse with crayons. At morning tea he gave me his raisin box for half my roll-up. It was a happy mutualism. The teacher had carefully engineered it this way. The whole class room was, in fact, carefully planned: noisy kids in the front where he could keep and eye on them; social butterflies carefully dispersed so they didn’t distract each other; introverts with other introverts. 

Our teacher taught us for eight years. We learnt to read, to write, to do sums. We learnt about the Roman empire and the Greeks and how photosynthesis works. We learnt about Antarctica and our teacher organised a trip to a Watties storehouse so we could stand in the cold for 20 minutes in hats and mittens and experience what Antarctica might be like. We learnt Hamlet and Taming of the Shrew. We learnt anatomy. We learnt how to kayak. 

I met up with my old desk mate at university years later. We sat in the crowded student cafe, at the back, and talked about our time at school.

“Do you remember when our teacher gave us a book each as a reward for learning our 12 times tables?”

“Yes,” I said. I’d been given Oliver Twist. I was nine years old. 

I still have that book. I still remember doing the quiz our teacher set to see if we knew our times tables. I remember receiving the book, how he shook my hand. It felt like such a milestone, like I’d achieved something amazing. I felt like I could do anything.

‘You can do anything you want,” says my English teacher. It’s an all-girls school. We are 15. We are grumpy and hormonal. It’s December and we are also tired, and hot. 

“You can do anything you want!” says my English teacher. “You can be anything you want!”

We lounge across our desks. Our uniforms are itchy. We are grumpy. We are hormonal. 

“Repeat after me,” she says. “I can do anything I want! I can be anything I want!”

Slowly, grumpily, we repeat it. Again and again. We are tired. We are hot. We are hormonal. We mumble. We moan. But we say it, anyway. 

Years later, I remember that day. I remember those words. I remember that teacher. I remember her relentlessness, her drive, for us. She gave us more than King Lear and Katherine Mansfield. She gave us an appreciation for our own power. 

What do you get a teacher to say thank you? This is a question for lots of people at this time of year. In Facebook and WhatsApp groups. At the school gate. Among groups of uni students. There are suggestions of wine, chocolate, massage vouchers. It’s a tight economic time. No one has a lot to spend. Yet it all seems – money constraints aside – inadequate, insufficient.

How do you truly thank someone who has persevered in teaching a child to read? Trying technique after technique, again and again, looking for more things – tools, ideas, approaches – to help? 

How do you truly thank someone who has read a child Pippi Longstockings and Danny, the Champion of the World and shown them how to paint murals and make clay mountains?

How do you truly thank someone who has given a child a love of numbers? Taught them how to notice patterns in nature? How to quantify pieces of the world?

How do you truly thank someone who has helped a child make friends? Who has noticed when they are unhappy, or alone, or not feeling well? Who has held their hand when they felt afraid? Who has been there day after day? 

How do you truly thank someone who a child is likely to remember for the rest of their life? 

Here’s one answer: A trip to the moon. 

Here’s another. Picture a child who runs to school every morning for a year, parting with a quick wave, not looking back. Picture a child who comes home every afternoon brimming with new information: a book, a painting of a sunset, a new way of looking at the world. Picture a child who, decades later, when this time is nothing but a memory, might think of something you said – a phrase, a word, a lesson – and stop and smile; take something from it and use it, because now they have a place in the world. A place that you helped them take. 

Keep going!