I’ve never had a student give me an apple.
Actually, come to think of it, I’m friends with a lot of teachers, and I don’t think any of them have ever received an apple as a gift. I’ve seen gifts of candy canes, popcorn, and various baked goods. One teacher I know named Mrs. Pringle once had a student present her with a single potato chip. Another teacher friend keeps a tin box in her purse for all the restaurant and coffee shop gift cards she receives. But I don’t know of anyone who has actually received that iconic apple.
And yet… there it is, stuck on all those trinkets, pins, and cards designed to be given to teachers. I’ve heard various theories behind the source of the symbol. Some say it hearkens back to the days of the one-room school-house and the children bringing gifts from the orchard to their much-beloved teachers. Others say the apple represents knowledge because of the tree in the Garden of Eden. I’ve even heard people reference the story of Newton’s “discovery” of gravity, though I don’t really understand how that associates with education. But by now, the source doesn’t matter. American culture has unquestionably accepted the symbolism and the apple is forever plastered on all things cutesy-teacher. Want to visually indicate the educational profession? Just slap together a picture of a stack of books and top it off with an apple, and all of a sudden you have a ready-made gift for a teacher.
That used to bug me. Nothing I do on a daily basis has anything to do with apples. I don’t teach agriculture, horticulture, or cooking. I bring them sometimes in my packed lunch, but not so frequently that they merit symbolism. I have no great connection to apples, so why do they keep showing up in my life? However, I’ve decided that it doesn’t really matter, because as an English teacher I know the value of symbolism, whatever it may be. I may not have any personal affection for the apple, but through that symbol the world is able to show their appreciation for what we do.
In a world that often questions the value, motives, and efforts of teachers, that reduces us to a list of test scores and union debates, I cannot ignore the value of those ready-made expressions of thanks. They encourage us and let us know that we are appreciated. We may occasionally secretly roll our eyes at the slightly creepy figurine now sitting on our desks or jewelry that we’ll probably never wear, but we will always appreciate the thought behind the gift. That thought is the real gift. The apple is just the means of communicating it.
I’m not about to decorate my house in apples. If anyone ever gives me a brooch with a ruler and an apple on it, it probably wouldn’t match my fashion sense. I would wear it in the class with that student, but not much otherwise. I would treasure it, though. I keep all the precious, heartfelt gifts my students and their parents give me. (Except the gift cards. I gladly spend those.)
I’ve never been given an actual apple, but one gift came close. About two years ago, several of my students were talking about fruit one day. A girl randomly turned to me and asked me what my favorite fruit was. I replied casually that I really liked mangoes. The next morning I walked into my classroom and found a mango sitting on my desk, complete with a sticky note that read, “I got you a MANGO!!”, signed with the girl’s name.
I ate the mango, and it was delicious. I still have the sticky note.