All’s Fair in Love and Teacher Gifts by Ellen Weeren

Photo of wrapped present with pink bow
Photo by Jess Bailey on Unsplash

Even though it was early June, Elena wore an oversized, off-white cable-knit cardigan to the grocery store. The gift cards were displayed near the beer coolers, an area which was always too cold for summer clothes. Her list of teacher gifts contained six names, eight if she counted the music and art instructors, who her son Brian only briefly saw every other week—not enough time to warrant the same Panera card his more engaged teachers should get, especially since he was such an easy kid.

She toyed with the idea of only treating them to a grande latte or a handmade thank you card. Her gratitude needed to be proportional in the same way that her wallet was. But teachers talked. Whose kid was respectful, smart, funny, obnoxious. Which parents volunteered their time or gave gifts good enough to make up for their absence on the noisy field trip buses. It wasn’t entirely clear if those whispers would follow her son to the seventh grade and his junior high school teachers.

Elena laughed to herself at the thought of this: her own mother hadn’t even known her teachers’ names much less volunteered or bought gifts for them. If this morning proved anything, it was that she was a better mother than the woman who raised her. At least she hoped she was.

Brian’s latest text asked to include the librarian and the janitor. He also wanted to add the principal, someone he thankfully never saw in person, only on the classroom TV for the morning announcements. He thought she was funny and worthy of some kind of something.

Now, her own principal Elena’s mother did know well because she flirted with him every chance she got, which kept Elena more on the straight and narrow than she would have liked.

Brian’s next text contained a list of gifts presented by some of the other kids a whole three days in advance of the last day before summer break:

A silver bracelet #Sally #ShePutItRightOn

Red roses in fancy vase #OnHerDesk #Ben

Braves tickets #ParkingIncluded #FromTheTwins

Elena texted back a smiley face. #WorkingOnIt, she added. And then, #Don’tWorry because she knew he would. He had taught her about hashtags and she loved how silly they were in overusing them.

Buying these gift cards meant her car would remain in the shop for at least two more weeks but her son would be #happy. In past years, the room parent had just asked for donations for a group gift. Elena could put a couple dollars in a sealed envelope and Brian never knew how small the percentage of the generous gift was from him. Since this was their last year in elementary school, someone suggested they do individual gifts. The room parents cared about proportional, too, because they had younger siblings coming up through the ranks.

At least Elena didn’t have that worry. Keeping up for the sake of siblings.  

She stopped at the avocado display and picked up the darkest one. It felt cold against her skin. By pressing on it with her thumb, she left a dent in its perfection. The apples were harder to punish but she managed three thumbprint bruises on the shiniest of the honeycrisps at $4.29 a pound. Brian’s classmate Sally brought the same kind of spit-polish and gleamy honeycrisps in her lunch every day, sliced thick enough to host a spoonful of gourmet chunky peanut butter and doused with lemon so they wouldn’t turn an ugly brown. Sometimes Sally would share a slice with Brian and he liked the bitter of the lemon against his lips. But she’d only ever give him a single slice in one sitting. Little Sally was exactly like her precious mother: generous enough to be called gracious but not generous enough to actually give grace, always subtly reminding others that they were less than worthy of her full attention. Always leaving Elena off the email invite for morning coffee, “because she knew she had to get to work right after drop-off.” She had mentioned once how cute it was that Elena’s uniform had a name badge on it. “I never forget your name, Elena,” she said and pointed to the frayed blue patch above her shirt pocket.

When a store manager stopped near Elena to straighten the watermelon display, she moved on to the gift card rack. The cards merged together in her mind as she did the mental math. So many choices, but so few true options. Nothing was face-valued under $15 per card.

She chewed on a hangnail on her thumb.

The woman beside her, a mom she knew from Brian’s fifth grade year, pulled down the entire stack of Outback cards, at $50 each. Elena stretched her worn sweater tightly across her stomach to ward off the frigid air and cover her name patch.

“So many teachers,” the woman said. “I guess it’s that time of year again.”

“They do so much for our kiddos. It’s hard not to be overly generous,” Elena answered and forced a slight smile. She looked down at the floor, one of her shoes was untied.

Her eyes scanned the options before her: Shell gas, Pizza Hut, IHop, Cracker Barrell, Ulta, Amazon, and on and on. Then there were the cards with fees: Visa, Mastercard, and American Express, each one with packaging prettier than the one before it. It all felt as unnecessary and required as picking out a Mother’s Day card.

After pretending to be making a hard decision, she took down a VISA card valued at $100, plus a $4.95 service fee. The gold foil cover reminded her of her prom dress senior year, the most expensive thing besides a car she’d ever owned. Now, she could barely afford the service fees for teachers her son would never see again. But she didn’t want to disappoint him.

Didn’t want the word to spread that she was one of those moms.

She pulled down nine more of the $100 VISA cards, counting them out in an exaggerated fashion. She added in a $25 Amazon card for the janitor. The eyes of the woman standing next to her opened wide.

“Oh, did you need any of these?” Elena asked, her smile now more genuine.

“No, you go ahead.” This time it was the other woman who looked at the floor at her own practical, navy-blue high heels.

Elena turned around and let her sweater fall open as she walked toward the registers. She slipped the VISA gift cards into her purse. She could peel away the back strip later to make them look legit. Brian would sign the thank you cards but she would not let him put his name on the gift cards themselves. That way, when his gift landed in the endless pile with all of the teacher’s other cards, it would just disappear into the fray. He’d look at her with confusion because he’d really want them to remember that he’d given such a wonderful gift. But eventually he would agree. This is how she knew she was a good mother. He trusted her.

On the way out of the store, she paid for the Amazon card for the janitor and a bottle of Dr. Pepper. She unscrewed the lid slowly, ready for the fizz to spill over the edge of the opening. When it didn’t, she took a drink and enjoyed the satisfaction of the cold liquid sliding down her throat.

Photo of BMX riders on jumps
Photo by Brian Matangelo on Unsplash

Ellen Weeren
Ellen Weeren’s work has been published by the Saturday Evening Post, the Kenyon Review (KRonline), Fractured Lit, Liars’ League NYC, the Hong Kong Review, Crack the Spine, Stonecoast Review, and others. She’s the recipient of the George Mason 2019 Outstanding Graduate Student Award (MFA Fiction), the Porches Writing Fellowship, the Dan Rudy Fiction Award, the Marjorie Kinnear Sydor Award in Literary Citizenship, and the Kenyon Review’s Novel Writing Workshop Peter Taylor Fellowship.

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