Some people were destined for a particular profession since birth, such was the case with Margaret Magnussen, never to be addressed as Maggie because it brought back the traumatizing years of elementary school teasing. Maggie Magnussen became MagMag the old hag which was later abbreviated to MagHag. The sole nickname she allowed was Magpie and the only people allowed to call her that were her parents and her best friend, Jane Campbell.
Out of respect, she will be referred to as Miss Magnussen for the duration of this tale.
Miss Magnussen only ever wanted to be one thing, a teacher, so she made it her profession, and she excelled at it. Even during her off hours, after preparing lesson plans and grading test papers and essays, she would spend time in teachers’ groups and forums on Facebook and WhatsApp and other platforms where the topic of conversation generally steered in the direction of the disadvantages of being a teacher:
- It’s not being a profession where a person would become rich
- Limited promotion options
- Repetitive lessons
- Difficult kids uninterested in what was being taught
- Parents complaining about the style of teaching,
and the list went on. They rarely spoke of the benefits like job stability, the improvement of salary and benefits, the joy of getting to teach subjects that you loved, and influencing the next generation, among others.
But there was one thing on Miss Magnussen’s list that straddled the line between disadvantage and perk: the day before Christmas vacation. That was the day when each of her students presented her with a Christmas gift. To be clear, she appreciated the acknowledgment of being in someone’s thoughts enough for them to give her a present and the term bad gift didn’t apply, especially when it came from an elementary school student.
It was the parent-bought gifts, the expensive items that made her feel as if she was perhaps being bribed to hand out better grades to students who offered the more expensive gifts, that put her in an awkward position. If she rejected the gift, she risked insulting the parent, and if she accepted it, she stood to be reprimanded by the school board. To date, the only gift she absolutely refused was a sheer negligée from a fourth-grade student’s single father.
And here it was, the final day before Christmas break and Miss Magnussen was staring at a desk covered with numerous World’s Greatest Teacher mugs, scented candles, perfumes, lotions, bath products, and things shaped like apples or with apple motifs. Of the thirty-two items, only one stood out from the rest:
A handmade sculpture.
It was placed on her desk by Jan Nichols. The other students snickered at it and mocked the ten-year-old for being too poor to buy a proper gift, but our Miss Magnussen saw something in that sculpture, something which defied any description other than to say it was breathtaking.
Its shape was fluid geometry that somehow folded and twisted in upon itself like a design pulled from a section of arcane biological mathematics that would have made Fibonacci’s mouth water in its simple complexity.
Luckily the day’s lesson plan consisted of a quick review of the lessons covered so far followed by an open discussion of student plans for the holidays because Miss Magnussen’s attention kept being drawn back to Jan’s sculpture.
When the end of day school bell rang and the students hurriedly packed their belongings and raced for vacation freedom, Miss Magnussen asked Jan to remain behind. The young girl approached the teacher’s desk with apprehension, her eyes pointed down at her scuffed polyurethane leather shoes.
To the casual observer, Jan Nichols might have seemed a plain Jane mousy chameleon who blended into the background to remain unnoticed thereby avoiding the unwanted attention which led to endless insults and teasing. Miss Magnussen, however, spotted her beauty. It was as if the universe planted a seed of perfect caring in her soul.
“Yes, Miss Magnussen?” Jan said in a voice barely above a whisper.
“I wanted to talk to you about your gift.”
“That I couldn’t afford to buy you a gift like the other kids,” Jan said and struggled with the following bit. “We don’t have a lot of money.”
“You thought I was going to berate you because of your gift?”
Jan shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
Miss Magnussen took Jan gently by the chin and lifted her head until they were eye to eye. “Oh, honey, you couldn’t be further from the truth. I think your gift is beautiful.”
“Really and truly?”
“Really and truly,” Miss Magnussen nodded. “I think the best gifts are handmade gifts. In fact, of all the gifts I’ve ever received, the handwritten letters, homemade cards and crafts are the most valued and remembered ones and I have a special shelf for them in my home.”
“Are you putting my gift on that shelf?” Jan asked, eyes wide with hope.
“I’m going to find a special place where it can sit on its own. But before I do that, I wanted to ask you about the statue. Can you tell me what it is?”
Jan thought long and hard before answering. “My mom suggested that I make you something, since we couldn’t afford to…you know…”
Miss Magnussen waved off Jan’s need to finish that thought. “Go on.”
“Well, she told me to think long and hard about what I wanted to make and since I love to sculpt and my dad had some extra clay laying around that he said I could use—he helped me bake and glaze it, by the way—I just closed my eyes and sculpted you.”
Miss Magnussen picked up the sculpture and turned it end over end in her hands. “This is me?”
“This is love,” Jan corrected. “It’s what I feel when I think about you. I don’t like school much, the kids are really mean when you’re not around, but when I’m here in your class and I see your face, you make me smile and make me feel safe. You’re so smart and funny and you teach us in a way that makes learning fun, so this is how I see you, only not with my eyes but with my heart.”
Oh, the tears. It was hardly professional to cry in front of a student but Miss Magnussen found it impossible to hold them back.
“I’m so sorry,” Jan said, looking like a skittish fawn prepared to bolt.
“Never apologize for your talent. These are good tears, Jan, happy tears,” Miss Magnussen said. She placed the sculpture back on the desk and fished a tissue from one of her drawers to dab her eyes with.
When she composed herself, Miss Magnussen said, “I had no idea you were having such a tough time with your fellow classmates. Why didn’t you say something?”
“Because it’s not good to tattle.”
“Jan, there’s a difference between being a tattletale and letting an adult know when something is wrong and bullying is wrong and I won’t stand for it and neither should you. Over the break I’m going to work on some solutions so we can nip this problem in the bud, okay?”
“Yes, Miss Magnussen.”
“In the meantime, we need to get you suited up in some mental armor.”
“Mental armor, what’s that?”
“It’s a trick that successful people use that makes all the difference in the world. The first part is learning the ability to turn obstacles around. You’ve heard the saying every dark cloud has a silver lining, haven’t you?”
“My mom says it all the time,” Jan nodded.
“That’s great, and you should always try to find the silver lining in any bad situation. It won’t be easy a lot of the time but just like with everything else, the more you practice it, the better you’ll get and the best part is that it turns you into a problem solver, someone that’s good in a crisis.”
“The second part,” Miss Magnussen continued. “Is to focus on being positive. You said I make learning fun. Do you know why I do that? Because putting people in a positive mood while teaching them something new helps them absorb the knowledge better and when you make them happy before a test they get better grades. Our brains are these amazing machines designed to perform at their best when they experience positivity.”
“That makes sense,” said Jan.
“And you’re good at sculpting, I mean really good, so I want you to think about creating something for the school art fair so we can show off your talent, and maybe I’ll even let you borrow my beautiful sculpture to display, but only if you promise to take really good care of it.”
“I would, I promise,” Jan crossed her heart with her index finger.
“All right, Miss Nichols, I shan’t keep you from your precious holiday vacation one second longer, so wish your parents Merry Christmas for me, and have a happy, healthy and hearty holiday season!”
A smile spread so wide across Jan’s face that it nearly split her head in half. “Thank you, Miss Magnussen, for everything…and same to you!” she said and skip-sprinted out of the classroom in that special way known only to young girls.
What Miss Magnussen hadn’t told Jan, as not to get her hopes up, was that she intended to look into funding for some art programs for the young sculptress to enroll in, because talent like hers deserved to be acknowledged and cultivated.
This was going to be a busy Christmas break, but absolutely worth it.