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Illustration by Adam De Souza

What’s the best gift that you’ve ever received? A piece of jewellery? An iPhone? A childhood toy?

Honestly, I’ve led a fortunate life. I’ve received many wonderful gifts. And I’ve forgotten almost all of them. (I’ve been given whiskey on many occasions. Perhaps that explains the fuzzy memory.)

But one year – a terrible year; a rotten, lousy piece-of-junk year – I received a gift that I’ll never forget.

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When 2005 began, I was married with two children. You can guess the rest.

My wife and I separated in that miserable, vile, grim and grisly year. In February, to be specific.

If you’re not a fan of winter, at least December has the appeal of fresh snow and the holiday season. And January is okay. More fresh snow and even fresher resolutions. But seeing your marriage end in February does nothing to endear you to the wreck of a month that is, if nothing else, mercifully short.

Getting to my job as a high-school English teacher in the weeks that followed the separation was difficult. I was a wreck.

What I quickly realized was that standing in front of 28 teenagers and teaching them grammar was an excellent distraction from shock and sadness. Going to work was an excellent tonic for my woes.

By July I was living in an apartment and seeing my children half as much as before. I had an impressive collection of Ikea furniture and a terrific linoleum floor in the kitchen upon which my son played with his toy cars.

And in September I started teaching a Grade 10 class that would become my own personal Santa Claus. They would become the brightest bulb on the tree and the star on top.

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My journey began the day that girl named Stella asked about symbols. “What were they?” she wondered. How did they work?

“Anything is a symbol,” I said.

“Like what?” Stella asked.

“Like a bridge,” I said.

Huh?!

I told Stella and the class about Kari. She was my first love, my university girlfriend. I described how she looked – brown hair and glasses. I told them how she used the word “zoinks” from Scooby-Doo. And I told them how, after a year or so of dating, we walked onto a bridge between Yonge Street and Mount Pleasant Road on a warm spring night in Toronto.

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When we walked onto the bridge, I told the class, we were a couple. When we got to the other side, we had broken up. She had dumped me.

Stella giggled. “She dumped you?”

“Yeah,” I responded.

Stella’s giggle became a full laugh. “She broke up with you on a bridge?”

Amy, another girl in the class, was irritated on my behalf. “Mr. Donaghey got dumped! That’s not nice!”

I chuckled. “It’s all right. It’s been a long time.”

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I was okay about Kari and the bridge. But what I didn’t tell my students was that my marriage had ended. I joked about the end of one relationship to deal with the end of another.

Bit by bit I told them more about Kari to the point that she was a household name in that class. She was a skier. She was from a small town. I told them how I’d taped balloons and drawings on her apartment door on Valentine’s Day, a goofy expression of love.

Bit by bit, the reality of being separated made me grumpy (no, angry). I was not looking forward to Christmas that year, a holiday that I’d always loved.

School went late that December. I was teaching up until the 23rd. I was blue. I had Christmas on my mind and I was miserable.

I had taught my class William Golding’s novel Lord of the Flies that term and I’d had them adapt chapters of the book into short films. Perfect, I thought. Some student videos, a few more classes and then I’d be free to be drive my moody self home.

We started to watch the videos as a class. About two or three films in, I’d found the pattern. Short film, then bloopers. Short film, bloopers. Then life unwrapped a gift that to this day means so much to me.

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Amy, the girl who had defended me from Stella’s laughter, suddenly appeared on a bridge at nighttime, walking with a boy. She didn’t normally wear glasses but she did in the video.

“Zoinks, Sean,” she said. “I really love you but we have to break up.”

“Oh my God, Kari!” said her Grade 10 classmate (doing his best impression of me). “No!”

It was, without a doubt, truly surreal. A painful moment of my life had been recreated in a high-school video blooper.

The room quickly fell into a painful and awkward silence. Crickets…

Until someone started to laugh.

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Me.

I started to laugh.

Months of pain fell away as I watched the best piss-taking I’ve ever seen.

And as I laughed, so did the class. We laughed for a very long time.

I smiled for the rest of the day. And for the holiday that followed.

To the students of Room 154, wherever you are today, thank you! You made fun of me that day and I love you for it.

Best. Gift. Ever.

Sean Donaghey lives in Toronto. He is happily in love.

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

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