One of the advantages of being a teacher is all of the nifty presents I get from my students. At Christmas there are the usual coffee mugs and stationary and Russian Tea and homemade jams and boxes of cookies, but my favorite gifts come at other times of the year.
One of the first gifts I was given as a new teacher was a handful of teaberries. I didn’t know what they were and I was a bit suspicious of the grubby hand holding the squished berries. “Go ahead, teacher, they’re good,” Robert said, and so after watching him eat one, I tentatively placed a berry in my mouth. They were good, tasting faintly minty and remarkably like teaberry gum. He grinned and a month later gave me my next teacher gift, a dime-store diamond ring which he had won at our annual Halloween Carnival. Robert waited until the class was quiet and then strolled up to the blackboard where I was writing up the day’s assignments. Dropping to one knee, the gangly 6th grader took my hand and asked me to marry him. I was tongue-tied. Fielding marriage proposals from love-struck boys hadn’t come up in my college classes and I think my blushing “No” probably hurt his feelings. As soon as possible, I sought the sage counsel of my principal who had a little talk with my sixth grade suitor and explained to him why the state wouldn’t allow him to marry one of his teachers.
My first year of teaching, I also received a batch of morel mushrooms and a bag full of ramps. Both gifts were harvested by my students and carried to me in brown paper sacks. I learned a lot about mountain hospitality that year, and even after twenty-eight years of teaching, I can still be surprised by my students’ generosity. Last Saturday, I was in the kitchen finishing up a batch of applesauce, when I heard a knock on the door. When I opened it, I was greeted by one of my eighth grade boys. His father was out in the truck behind him and waved to me as his son handed me a Ziploc bag full of skinned and dressed squirrels. I had mentioned in a class the week before that I had never successfully made squirrel gravy, so his mom brought me some gravy and biscuits the next day and shared her recipe. I never expected to then receive a bag full of fresh-killed ingredients for my own efforts.
I made the gravy and we had fried squirrel with biscuits and gravy for supper. Our visiting minister mentioned at a cover-dish lunch that next afternoon, that, although he had travelled all around the world and eaten some strange and wonderful dishes, he wished he could taste some true mountain food. Imagine my surprise when he said that what he’d really always wanted to taste was squirrel gravy. I believe it was ordained by God that I still had some left in the fridge. I carried him a container full that evening. My friend, Robin, says it is bad luck to thank someone for a gift. Instead you should pass the blessing on. Forevermore, squirrel gravy will remind me of the blessings of gifts given and received in my remote mountain home.
P.S. For the recipe, check out my other blog Singing in the Kitchen