The Present

It was a sunny, spring day in the beginning of March. The day began like most others, as ten students clomped into our elementary, self-contained special ed room wearing oversized coats, noisy boots and multi-colored backpacks. We stood for the pledge and the daily announcements. Finally, the buzz settled and the students took their seats. I told them to get out their spelling words.

Ruby, the oldest and tallest student in the class piped up. “Ms. E,” Ruby shouted from the back corner of the room. “I have a present for you.”

Ten sets of eyes turned to look at Ruby, a pretty girl with a deplorable home life, proudly clutching a newspaper-wrapped package on her desk.

“Oh, Ruby that’s so sweet,” I said. “Do you think you can wait and give it to me later?”

“No,” she said, a little too anxious. “I need to give it to you now.”

Ruby approached my desk with urgency and set down the package, which landed with a thud on my metal desk. Immediately, all ten students got up from their desks and gathered around me to watch the unveiling.

The package was cold and hard. Rock hard. Frozen, actually. Cautiously, I unwrapped the newspaper. Under the newspaper was aluminum foil, which was frozen and hard to get off. Slowly, I continued uncovering a final clear, saran-wrap layer and there I saw it—it was a fish.

Sweet Jesus, it’s a fish!

It was not a flaky-white, ready-to-cook fillet, but an entire frozen fish. Eyes, scales and fins all in-tact. I wanted to scream.

“Oh wow, Ruby,” I said my voice unsteady, stating the obvious. “It’s a fish.”

The rest of the class fell into hysterics. Marcus rolled on the floor laughing. “Ruby brought you a dang fish,” he said.

“Your mama gave you a fish for Ms. E?” Robert squealed, doubling over.

“Do it smell funky in here?” Tasha teased, and the whole class erupted again.

I looked at Ruby. She was beaming. Totally unfazed, her eager smile waiting for my reaction.

“Ruby, that was so thoughtful,” I stammered. “Does your mom know you brought me this?”

“She wrapped it!” Ruby exclaimed. Of course, she did.

What was I supposed to do with a fish? Clearly it couldn’t sit on my desk all day and melt. The office was downstairs and there was no way I could leave the class to dispose of the fish. I peered into the hallway, desperate for help, but it was deserted.

I buzzed the office.

“Yes?” the intercom clipped off the secretary’s voice.

“Um, could I get someone to come to my classroom for a quick second?” I asked trying to sound cheery.

“Is it an emergency?” she barked, annoyed.

Yes this is an emergency, there is a fricking fish on my desk!

“Um, not exactly, but if you could just please have someone come up that would be really great,” I said.

Over the years, I’ve received many gifts from students. I have a box filled with handmade letters, drawings, glass trinkets and mugs. My box has survived every move, purge or downsize, and my heart still melts every time I open it. Ruby’s frozen fish is perhaps the only gift that is not actually in my box-- but it is definitely the present I will never forget.

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