Her name was Sara. It was very obvious that she was different from her classmates. Her clothes were often wrinkled and dirty, and her hair was always tangled and messy. In contrast to the other 8-year-old girls who came to school with their hair in bows matching their outfits, Sara’s hair never had bows.
She often said the wrong thing. She would blurt out exactly what she was thinking at any moment she was thinking it. She didn’t fit in the class full of kids who were from privileged homes. She literally lived on the wrong side of the tracks with a single mother who was never home and never came to school. The other children ignored her, unless it was to laugh sharply at something she said or at the latest jab her teacher threw at her.
I was her student teacher, and she took to me. While the other third grade girls sat primly by me complimenting my hair or clothes, Sara would sit as close as she could stroking my nylons or pointing out flaws in my fingernail polish or a blemish on my face. At first I was taken aback by her blunt honesty; but within the sea of prim perfection, I came to find it as refreshing.
I finished my student teaching before the holiday break. While all the students hugged me good-bye and presented me with ornately wrapped gifts, Sara ignored me and sulked in the corner. I left that day with my arms piled high with gifts.
At home, I unwrapped one boutique store ornament after another with cards written in a mother’s handwriting stating the giver of the gift. And finally, at the bottom of the pile was a gift that had been slipped in at the last moment.
It was wrapped in wrinkled plain white tissue paper that was already torn and held together by tape. It was wet and smelled slightly foul.
It was small, half-full bottle of perfume. The note, written in a child’s scrawl, said simply, “I love you. From Sara.”
For the next eight years I taught in a low income school. I didn’t receive boutique store gifts. More often than not, I received nothing at the holidays. When I did, it would be something like a tarnished gumball machine ring, a bracelet made out of string, a homemade ornament, or even a bottle of used perfume.
I didn’t keep any of it—the items had no use to me. But I did keep the notes. Years and years’ worth of notes from children whose mothers didn’t shop at boutiques and who probably weren’t around when items were lifted from their jewelry boxes to bring to school.
These children owed me nothing; yet they gave me everything. Without a parent to do it for them, they wrote notes and gave gifts from their hearts. Money wasn’t an issue for them because they had none; yet they found a way to show me how much they cared.
I still have the binder full of notes—from the very first one from Sara to the last I received when I left the classroom to be a full-time mom. I may have taught those children, but they gave me a lesson more valuable than money can buy.
They taught me that if you really care about someone, it’s easy to show them just how much. If you really care about someone, you will let nothing stand in your way of showing them—not money, not pride, nor a lack of ideas.
You will simply tell them, “I love you” in your own way. And it will be the most valuable gift you could ever give.