Upper School Dean Sharon Cuseo found a gift from a student sitting on her desk. It was a beautiful textile with an intricate pattern made from gorgeous materials. Cuseo wrapped it around herself like a shawl and walked around with it draped over her outfit. Several days later, when she talked to the student who had given her the gift, she learned that the shawl was actually a rug.
The rug is one of many gifts that Cuseo has received as an upper school dean. Students regularly give Christmas gifts as well as end-of-the-year presents to their deans and teachers.
“You learn to be gracious and just accept gifts,” former dean and current Head of External Relations Ed Hu said. “I think the vast majority of the gifts I receive are nice, thoughtful gifts, whether they’re books or pens or gift certificates because people know I enjoy going to certain restaurants or reading books.”
Many students give standard gifts such as baked goods or books. However, students have also been known to give more costly gifts such as expensive gift cards or handbags.
“When I first got here, I didn’t realize this was something that happens,” Cuseo said. “I returned something that I felt really uncomfortable with. I did it through the Head of School because he thought he could finesse it more and not have it be offensive to the family.”
Performing Arts teacher Ted Walch said he has never been made uncomfortable by the gifts he has received.
“The most extravagant gifts I have received are from people for whom extravagance is not only possible but in some ways appropriate,” Walch said. “I do know some other teachers that have received gifts in excess of $1,000, and they have felt uncomfortable, but I have never received such a gift. I have received gift cards up to $300. But given the student, and my experience with that student, that seemed fair, and I did not feel uncomfortable.”
Sometimes the timing of a gift can make a difference.
“I was always uncomfortable with gifts at certain times of year,” Hu said. “There are certain gifts, where after someone would get into college and were really happy and would give a gift of thanks, that were really nice, but there are times in which gifts are given at odd times. They are being in their way thoughtful, but it might just be oddly timed where you’re in the middle of the college process, and it may just seem a little bit more out of line.”
Harvard-Westlake does not have a gift-giving policy. The administration has discussed having one, but it would be tricky to implement because of offense it may cause to families with certain cultural backgrounds where gift-giving is standard practice, Hu said.
“To set a gift giving policy at the school could offend the heritage and culture of people,” Hu said. “That’s what would make some hesitant of just having a blanket policy for the school. In a place where you’re trying to be diverse and inclusive, it’s tricky territory to tread.”
A policy on gift giving could be beneficial to kids who may feel pressure to give gifts, Walch said.
“My concern is for the kids who don’t give gifts,” Walch said. “When they see gifts being given to teachers, do they feel, ‘Oh, I should do something,’ and then decide to do something later? I understand that they come from a nice place from all sorts of people, and I think it would be wrong to have a policy about it. It’s well enough alone to just leave things as they are. But I’m always just a little bit uncomfortable for the kid who isn’t giving a present.”
Many kids do not feel pressured to give gifts, however.
“I feel like for teachers who spoke to me throughout the year or made an impact on me somehow, I’ll give them gifts out of appreciation, but I don’t feel pressured by other people who give all their teachers gifts because it seems excessive,” Bridget Hartman ’15 said.
Student-to-teacher gift giving isn’t always motivated by a personal connection, Kate Goodman ’15 said.
“I think some kids do it for a little more attention or a little grade boost, especially if [they have a borderline grade],” Goodman said. “If my teacher had just told me ‘Your grade is almost to an A-,’ if I had a B+, then I probably would try to do whatever I could to make them like me more.”
First year Upper School Dean Jamie Chan said that she did not know what to expect in terms of gifts coming into the school year. She had heard stories of extravagant student gifts from other faculty members but did not receive any that made her uncomfortable.
“I didn’t feel like any of mine were ridiculous,” Chan said. “Which was nice because I would feel bad if something was a lot of money. Each family’s capacity of giving might be different. For some a loaf of bread might be their way of saying thank you, and I love food so that’s great, and some might love giving really lavish gifts, and that’s what they feel comfortable with.”
However extravagant certain gifts might be, the majority of them are very particular and heartfelt, Cuseo said.
“I know that students, particularly with teachers, get really thoughtful, and they want to find the perfect thing that expresses what they mean to them, and that’s so nice,” Cuseo said.
They can end up being somewhat unusual, however thoughtful the student might think they’re being.
“Once I got a razor,” Hu said. “That was just odd. I had no idea why somebody would get me a razor. Maybe they were trying to send me a message.”