As I ran my fingernail along the fold in the brown paper, making it sharp-sharp-sharp, I couldn’t help but remember the woman who taught me how to wrap boxes properly, many years ago.
Eighth grade religion class, Mrs. J. Our catholic school had a service requirement for the older children, and our assigned project (or chosen, I honestly can’t remember, but isn’t everything partly assigned at that age?) was to wrap presents. The presents would be given to Sudanese refugee children whose families were part of an organization called Reach Out to Africa, that brought refugees from Sudan to Buffalo, to make a new start.
“Learning how to wrap presents properly is an important skill,” Mrs. J told us, as she dumped 27 empty boxes on the classroom floor. Most of us were just excited to get out of that day’s lecture, but she promptly showed us that present-wrapping was serious business. She demonstrated the proper way to run the scissors smoothly down the paper, so it wouldn’t snag and tear the wrong way. Slid her finger along the folds, always folding the edges of the paper under so no ragged edges showed on the outside, once origamied into place. Military corners, the kind I would learn to make on camp beds that summer, no crunching. No crinkling. No excess tape.
Mrs. J walked around the classroom as we practiced, and practiced, and practiced. If our packages weren’t perfect, she tweaked our technique and we tried again. Until they were acceptable for her exacting standards. Until, that is, they were acceptable for the gifts’ recipients.
We weren’t giving these presents to our parents, our siblings, or each other. Most of us would never meet the children who would rip apart the paper without a second glance. No one would know if the corners were less than perfect. For that matter, most of the children wouldn’t have cared if the presents were wrapped in plastic bags, since they were some of the only gifts they were likely to get. But Mrs. J cared, and she impressed upon us the importance of caring, too.
As always, she had a more important lesson in mind than corners that could cut glass. Inside those boxes, was the value of putting our best into whatever we did, regardless of whether the recipient would notice. The value of caring enough to do a good job, even (especially) if no one was watching.
Admittedly, my present-wrapping technique has gotten sloppier since those days. My corners are more mess hall than military, much of the time. But I still do the best I can, with my clumsy adult fingers. Because I care.
We’re a calloused society, in this day of easy screen-safe insults and username shields. We often pride ourselves on not caring what other people think, but I think there’s value in caring for other people’s opinions, even if we don’t let them affect us, as such. When I wrap a package, even if it’s as simple as sending out a book for review, I take care because I want to put my best foot forward, even, no, especially into the places no one will notice.
It’s having enough self-confidence to care. And for that, I thank Mrs. J and a stack of empty boxes. They held an important lesson for at least one student, that day.