The first grade classroom crackled with excitement. Small packages wrapped in bright papers rustled in our hands. Make no mistake though, Mrs. Gassman was still very much in charge of the room. We were all seated and squirming excitedly in our nailed-to-the-floor seats.
A few weeks earlier, we had exchanged names, in a very orderly methodical way. We each took a sheet of paper out of our yellow tablets and cut off a piece of paper (that we had measured with our wooden rulers). Yes, there was always learning taking place in that classroom. We very carefully printed our first and last name on that small piece of yellow paper, folded it once, and when our row was called, we marched to the teacher’s desk and dropped it in a small basket. Then the teacher walked up and down each row with the basket as each student drew a name for the Christmas Gift Exchange.
“Now, if you get your own name, please put it back,” Mrs. Gassman explained, “you don’t want to buy yourself a gift, do you?” Of course, the class goofball had a comment for that, but it was low-spoken so the teacher did not hear. Maybe she just ignored it.
“Keep this a secret. And don’t lose your name! No one else knows whose name you have selected. We don’t want any disappointments! And remember the gift limit is twenty-five cents.”
Today was the day we had been anticipating for weeks. In her usual orderly fashion our teacher called out for row one to deliver their gifts. Then row two, row three, and finally row four. We waited impatiently for everyone to give and receive their gift and then we were directed to open our presents. And, of course, we were reminded to thank the giver.
I opened my small package, which was long and narrow, and wrapped with a pretty bow. Opening the tiny black box inside, I discovered a pearl necklace! I was delighted and disappointed at the same time. I was hoping for some type of toy, but at the same time… this was my very first piece of jewelry. Ever! I quickly decided to go for the delighted emotion and carefully examined the necklace. It was attached in several places with tiny string so it would lay flat in the box until you removed it. Of course, I wanted to wear it right away so I tore into the necklace and it exploded! Tiny beads popped all over my desk, rolling onto the floor and creating a minor disruption in my area of the room. I had broken the necklace getting it out of the box. I was crushed. I quickly began gathering up the tiny white beads (and they were tiny) with the help of my classmates and dumped them into the box with the white silky lining. My eyes filled with tears and my heart filled with real disappointment. Mrs. Gassman quickly came over and reassured me that when I got home, the beads could be restrung on a new piece of string and it would be as good as new. I had my doubts.
Somehow, the rest of the day played out. I’m sure we had a treat of juice and Christmas cookies and usually the school or the PTA provided each of us with a nice brown paper bag full of goodies, including an orange and chocolate drops (my favorite as a first grader). There were many more gift exchanges in my future. I did learn to be a little more careful while opening gifts. Later I became the teacher in my own little classroom and supervised a few gift exchanges of my own. This first one was the most memorable by far.