Thank you for going the extra mile

Compared to other professions, it is teachers who are likely to hear the most number of “thank you” said to them each day. —

GROWING up in the 1960s, there were traditions connected with festive seasons that still stick out significantly in my memories of childhood days. One of these was the giving and receiving of festival cakes and cookies that went on in our neighbourhoods. These and other traditions probably still exist but have evolved into different forms. Also, they have more likely become so predictable and routine that people just do them without thinking too much about their significance.

I remember the trays of festive goodies that would come from our neighbours during these festival seasons. Someone from the family next door or down the street, usually a younger person, would march up to our front door with a very important look on their face bearing in their hands a candy tray with different compartments, covered auspiciously with a beautifully embroidered lace cover. Bits of kuih baulu, jam tarts, ghee biscuits or love letters would peek through the eyelets in the lace, promises of the delights in store for us as we received the tray with both hands from the person at the door. It was a solemnly important event, this giving and receiving of festive cookie trays. We thanked the giver, wished them Selamat Hari Raya, Happy New Year, Merry Christmas or whatever the occasion warranted and asked them to wait in the living room or wherever was available. It was an important wait and the bearer of the tray sat basking in his own honoured position for several minutes while waiting for the tray to be returned. We had to return the trays immediately because they would be needed for the next house and the next giving. This was not yet the age of plastic bags and convenient disposable packs.

In the kitchen our mother would lift the delicate cloth protecting these cookies, take them out and lay them gently in a special container with a look in our direction which meant no touching or tasting yet till the whole ritual was done. Then she would wash the tray, dry it properly and before she covered it again with the tray cloth, she would add a little bit of sugar in the middle compartment. “We never return an empty tray.” This lesson stuck with us all our lives.

When it was time for Deepavali, it was our turn as the family’s children to be the bearer of cakes. We each had our turns at gift bearing when we were considered old and responsible enough to carry the gift tray properly and this we did with pride and great care. We made sure to balance the tray so that our lace tray cover cloth would not get stuck between the muruku pieces our mother had carefully arranged and that the agar-agar wouldn’t slip off the tray. And this time it was our turn to wait for that all-important moment when the tray would be returned to us minus the goodies but with sugar in the middle.

Looking back, I think of how special that whole event was beginning with the choice of the tray. Only the finest was good enough for this all-important mission of festive cookie giving. The tray was special, stored carefully and taken out only for these special occasions. There were no convenient éasy plastic packs or disposable boxes for the purpose of giving festive goodies. No handy wraps and gift bags which you didn’t have to wait for in the living room to be returned for the next giving. And there was no sugar in the middle.

When we returned the trays with the sugar in the middle to our mothers, they knew exactly what it meant. It was a way of saying thank you for sharing your special celebration with us by giving us all these cakes and cookies.Thank you for taking the trouble to select them carefully and arrange them in this beautiful tray and to send your son or daughter over to hand it to us personally. Thank you for covering them with this lovely lace cloth. And this sugar is a little bit of sweetness from us to show our appreciation to you in return.

We do things differently these days of course and sugar now seems to have earned a bad reputation. The act of giving and receiving during festive seasons has continued through the years and in many ways the task has been expedited, made easier by the ready to use pre-wrapped gift packs and food hampers, beautifully decorated cookie jars and bottles with ribbons which we find crowding almost every department store all year round with themes for every festival. Saying thank you also comes in myriad forms, many of which are electronic or virtual with amazing animation.

It is quite likely that compared to many other professions, it is teachers who are most likely to hear the most number of “thank you” said to them each day. After each lesson each day, some 30 voices or so lift up in sing-song unison and chant after their monitor “Thank you teacher/Miss… or Terima kasih Cikgu.” At the risk of appearing a little strange or soliciting unwanted questions about their personal stress or emotional state, I wonder if any teacher has ever stopped after that chorus of “thank you” and asked the students: ‘Well, what exactly are you thanking me for?” We ourselves may say “thank you” several times a day; to different people; when someone does us a favour, gives us a compliment, keeps a door open. Sometimes we just use these words to end an official e-mail when we can’t think of any other way to end the letter. “Thank you. Best wishes..”

But it is not very often that we back up our thank you with reasons for these words. What are we saying thank you for. Granted it may seem a little obsequious or overly ingratiating when the showing of appreciation goes overboard and when too much is said with a thank you. In fact, at times the two words “thank you” themselves can convey a universe of untold meanings which only the person who says it and the one who receives it understand. Superfluous words are almost always unnecessary, undesirable even, especially when they hint at insincerity.

At times I have even wondered at the appropriateness of the words “thank you.” I always feel a little amused whenever I see a school sign with the words in bold display. “Terima Kasih kerana datang ke sekolah hari ini. Thank you for coming to school today.’ I remember the comment made by one of my ex-colleagues, a much harried discipline teacher in a school well-known for its ‘notorious’ suspension list of students and various disciplinary problems.“ Hey, they should be the ones thanking us for allowing them to come to school. Or better still, the “thank you” should be for us teachers for coming in to work each day despite all we have to go through.”

Still, it would be nice sometimes if we could add a little more meaning to our words of appreciation. “Thank you for getting that file for me. You really saved me a lot of time. Thank you for the compliment. It really makes my day. Thank you for sending this on time. Now I can get on with my compilation.”

Sometimes it is nice to know what it is you are being appreciated for. It would mean so much more to hear a genuine “thank you” from our students each day other than during Teachers Day celebrations. Thank you teacher for taking the time to explain this problem to me. Thank you for going the extra mile. Even though it is our job and we are paid to do it, it would feel good to hear words of appreciation for what we do more often.

Sometimes a little sugar is good with the tray you give back and if sugar is not appropriate, then something else which evokes that feeling of sweetness in the heart and in the ears will do just as well most of the time.

by  Dr G Mallika Vasugi: Teachertalk
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