Over the holiday season, Modesto High School English teacher Jennifer Pereira gave her students something more to ponder than material gifts.
She told students to read biographical information on American philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson, plus several of his short essays. She issued an assignment about what Emerson deemed to be a "true gift."
Emerson wrote that "rings and other jewels are not gifts, but apologies for gifts. The only gift is a portion of thyself ... a biography conveyed."
A "true gift" would be something that exemplifies one's personality, interests, talent and passion in life.
Pereira asked her students to consider their talents, skills and bits of knowledge that make them unique and to come up with a gift embodying the Emersonian ideal.
"I wanted my students to share in Emerson's valuable truth — we each have something we must honor and present to the world," Pereira said.
After reflecting on their passions and talents over winter break, juniors in Pereira's International Baccalaureate English classes delivered their Emersonian gift presentations last week.
The classroom filled with the sweet, succulent smells of desserts and an exotic array of foreign dishes. In seventh period alone, the diversity was awe-inspiring.
Jamasen Rodriguez created a culinary work of art — a beautiful cake he cut and shared with the class. Jamasen created a chocolate, mint, and vanilla bean cake, with a frosting of whipped cream and a checkered array of chocolate and vanilla on the inside.
"Cooking has been one of my passions ever since I was 5 years old," said Jamasen, who hopes to become a pastry chef.
Andrew Musca and Nick Weinmeister brought a pingpong table into the classroom, demonstrated their "expert techniques" and wrapped up by giving everyone a pingpong ball.
Andrew and Nick created the Ping-Pong Panthers club this school year, arranging matches against students from other schools.
"We're gonna teach you to play pingpong because ... pingpong defines us!" Andrew explained.
Derek Davis conducted a science experiment showing how common household ingredients can be used to create an expanding white foam called "elephant toothpaste."
Arkell Rogers delivered two witty and heartfelt poems. Edward Porras demonstrated his pole-vaulting technique.
Michael Lee and Joonyoung Kim played a violin duet, "Air," by Johann Sebastian Bach. Kelsea Mensonides brought a boderkoek, a delicious Dutch treat commonly eaten with coffee or tea.
Other students brought in cookies, paintings, drawings and crafts. Some sang, taught karate or even played video games.
Asked what they thought was the best Emersonian presentation, the class overwhelmingly chose the rap that Jacoby Remington and Erika Meyers wrote to the song "Forever."
"It was really entertaining and funny," said Hillary Cho. "They danced, and their lyrics were great."
"I thought that everyone's was great, but I enjoyed the rap of Jacoby because it represents himself and his passion in life," said Miriam Ruedas.
The most unexpected or surprising gift? The class split between those brought by Hannah Bodem and Matt Avila.
Hannah used her knowledge of theater makeup to create a realistic "wound" on the arm of classmate You Li.
"I never would've thought that a cute little thing like Hannah would've been into something as gnarly (but cool!) as gore makeup," Kelsea Mensonides said.
Matt brought a live, 1-week-old bull calf to show the class. His family owns a dairy, so farming and cows have become a huge part of his life.
"I wouldn't have thought someone would bring in a live animal," said Edward Porras. "I mean, come on! It's a baby calf!"
While the assignment may have seemed unorthodox to some, Alina Zhang saw it as "such a refreshing change from the normal school routine."
"I loved the gifts," said Joonhyung Kim, "because it gave a moment for everyone to express themselves truly. I learned a lot and what to truly see people as."
"It's just such a joy to be able to appreciate my students as individuals rather than mere English students," Pereira said. "So often as educators, we get caught up with academic standards and checking off all the boxes that we have to teach by the end of the year.
"Sometimes we forget that the greatest lessons are the ones that students learn from discovering their passions in life and by reflecting on themselves."
Rebecca Mears is a junior at Modesto High School and a member of The Bee's Teens in the Newsroom journalism program.