Dawn Gilliland greeted eighth-grader Lamont Tremmel warmly as he entered her office, a wrapped gift and greeting card in his hands.
"Well, hello Lamont," the Rushe Middle School literacy coach said. "Is today the 12th day?"
"Yes," he said, nodding and smiling widely.
"Twelve drummers drumming. Is there a drum in there?" Gilliland asked, eyeing the present.
Lamont shook his head and urged her to read the card. He couldn't get a drum, he wrote, so "I drummed up some cookies for you."
She tore off the paper, examined the Christmas cookies and set them down to hug Lamont.
"Thank you," Gilliland said, tearing up. "This has been the best Christmas ever. My kids aren't home this year. You've really made my Christmas, Lamont."
At so many schools, teachers tread lightly on Christmas. They talk about world cultures, highlighting every winter holiday they can think of, to avoid being labeled as preaching Christmas.
Rushe Middle reading teacher Lisa Lee had other things in mind. She knew her small class of students loved Christmas as much as she does, and when it came time for a new project, she tied her lesson directly to that special day.
It began with Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, a novel she figured all her students would have read. They hadn't, though, so that became the first assignment.
The book mentioned the 12 days of Christmas, which reminded the class of the song, which in turn got them talking about a gifting project to select teachers. The students researched the meaning and symbolism behind each of the presents — swans a-swimming or maids a-milking, for instance — and then wrote a short paper or poem about each.
They each then chose an adult in the school to share what they had learned, and to give 12 days of presents. Lamont chose his literacy coach because she encouraged his love of poetry.
Eighth-grader Dylan Press picked his science teacher, who he said makes learning fun through hands-on experiments. Seventh-grader Edreese Hill went with his physical education coach, whom he called "a fun and a good person."
A quick math lesson made clear that they couldn't afford all the items listed in the carol. The annual PNC Christmas Price Index shows that the price tag for everything from the drummers drumming to the partridge in a pear tree approaches $100,000 if repeated as in the song, or almost $24,000 for just one of each.
So the class "did it our way," keeping its expenses down to $17.43 per person. Lords a-leaping translated into peppermint foot soak. Five golden rings? A can of Dole pineapple slices, of course.
"I was kind of surprised," PE teacher Roy Bain said of Edreese's first gift, sliced pears. "After I opened the card and the gift, I realized what they were doing. In 20 years of teaching, I never had anything like this. It was real nice."
Word of the project quickly spread as other classes saw Lee's students arrive daily with a wrapped package and a card. People tried to guess what the next one would be.
Six geese a-laying couldn't be geese. How about a half-dozen eggs? Could it be? (Absolutely.)
"It was a lot of fun," Dylan said. "It made Mr. Hill really happy. … And every time I went in there the students were hoping I would come in their period. They wanted to see what it was."
That Christmas spirit became contagious. Assistant principal Ron Michalak bought a school T-shirt for each student in Lee's class.
"You've got to give a gift back," Michalak explained. "You've got to be in the spirit."
Eighth-grader Brandon Davis came to the class with the project already under way. He still got into the swing of things, helping write cards and deliver gifts to the teachers with his classmates.
"It's really fun," he said. "I didn't think this would happen unless I bought something at home and brought it in for the teachers."
Fun is key in school, Lee said. "We do the academic side. But there are ways to do it to make it more interesting. It was something we just tried to see if we could do it and …"
"… it succeeded," Lamont said.
"It was just a fun thing to do for Christmas," he said.
It worked for Gilliland, too. She turned the 11 green pipe cleaners (pipers piping) into a decorative Christmas tree, and used the six eggs (geese a-laying) to make cookies and cake for Lamont.
"In my 30 years in the school district, this is the best thing that ever happened," she said. "This has put me in the Christmas spirit."
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 909-4614. For more education news, visit the Gradebook at www.tampabay.com/blogs/gradebook.