Gifts

At the end of the year, or at one of the various ends of the year, students seek out their teachers and sometimes exuberantly, sometimes shyly present them with a gift: chocolates, or a flower, or a gift certificate, or maybe a book. I have been given memorable things, including a Balaton bike trip, a volume of Radnóti, a chocolate bar, and more. But on Tuesday a student gave me a gift that she had made, a framed collage, set between glass panes, of lavender and special images that bring up memories of the past few years: of Shakespeare (and Bottom), Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, conversations, cello, singing “This Land Is Your Land,” and playing hangman sometimes in the last minutes of class (and the combination of all of these: serious, playful, whimsical). After wondering where to put it, I chose my desk at home—and if the desk gets too cluttered for it, then it’s time to declutter. It will be a good new habit.

There’s at least a slight risk in gift-giving. You don’t know whether the person will like it and accept it, but you go ahead and give it anyway, and in doing so, you give a little bit more than the gift itself, not only of yourself, but of something beyond yourself. The gift doesn’t have to be fancy. I remember a time when I spontaneously shared my orange with someone, and she later told me that that was her favorite of all the gifts I had given her, because it was unplanned.

Books are sometimes my least favorite gift to receive, because I never get around to reading them, and then I feel bad. But I love a book that I can treasure and read when I want. The Radnóti collections are like that. I think that’s how a book gift should be: something long-lasting, not a book of the moment. But it depends on the recipient too. There are people who will read anything you give them (even by the next day sometimes).

Gifts need a proper occasion and proportion. You can’t give too much to people, or they will start to feel indebted or suspicious, which undoes the very purpose of the gift. I remember when I was fourteen, living in Moscow, and invited a classmate to the Bolshoi theatre or ballet. I think it was the theatre. Afterwards, I told her I wanted to treat her to the evening. She said, “Mne neudobno” (“It’s uncomfortable for me.”) But being a stubborn teenager, I insisted. And so she later treated me to a show too: a performance of Mayakovsky’s Klop (Bedbug), which, while entirely unintelligible to me at the time, still leaves me with fun, fierce memories.

Receiving gifts gracefully is as important as the giving. And that takes some perception. In high school I gave a beautiful Escher kit to someone who wasn’t really a friend yet (she was one of the older sisters of one of my friends). Then I felt embarrassed; maybe she didn’t like it, or didn’t want it from me! So I tried to explain why I had given it to her, and she just said, “That’s perfectly understandable,” which meant she had received it in good spirit. (She was a person of few words, but she meant what she said.)

So yes, when it comes to giving gifts, there’s a tension between honoring the forms and breaking the rules. Both are needed. If you don’t honor the forms, your gifts might come across as eccentric, awkward, or at least inappropriate. But a gift inevitably breaks out of the forms too. It inherently breaks the rule of self-containment. (Is there a rule of self-containment? Yes, I think so: the idea that this is mine, that is yours, and we keep to ourselves unless there’s reason to do otherwise.)

Is it possible to live without breaking the rules at least slightly? No, because most of the rules (no matter how noble their purpose) call for at least a bit of rattling now and then. A gift rattles the universe gently.

I added a lot to this piece after posting it.

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  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In April 2022, Deep Vellum published her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

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    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

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    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

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