May 25, 2014.
By: Katie Egan


College professors give students the ultimate gift of knowledge before they spread their wings and leave the nest.

But what’s often not known are the thoughtful and quirky graduation gifts some teachers give their students after forging unbreakable bonds with them — bonds that last years after graduation.

Morgan Souza, 24, of Fort Myers, is one of those students.

About a year ago last spring, Souza got two presents from her “professor parents” that she will never forget.

Jesse and Lyn Millner gave their “rainbow daughter,” who graduated from Florida Gulf Coast University this year with a masters of English literature, a rainbow polka dot umbrella and the pocket-size poetry book “Leaves of Grass” by Walt Whitman.

Lyn, who teaches journalism, and Jesse, who teaches English and creative writing, call Souza their rainbow daughter because she is known throughout the University by students and professors for her rainbow-colored hair.

Jesse got “Leaves of Grass” on a Christmas during graduate school along with pocket editions of other iconic poets.

“Whitman said to read ‘Leaves of Grass’ every day of your life,” Millner said. “So I read it every day.”

“Even if I don’t open it up, seeing it makes me smile,” Souza said. “It reminds me there are people who care about me.”

The pint-size poetry book also has Millner’s personal notes in it, which is special to Souza, she said, because she highly respects Millner as a poet.

Lyn Millner didn’t have a pocket poetry book, but she carried around a white umbrella with rainbow polka dots on it that Souza adored.

“Every time she saw me, she pretended to grab it,” Millner said. “It was very clear she wanted it.”

Lyn said she’s never seen someone so happy.

“Her mouth just came open when I gave it to her,” she said.

Richard Kenney, a former FGCU journalism professor and current chairman of communications for the Pamplin College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Georgia Regents University, used to give his students a pair of unusual sunglasses he found on eBay as a graduation gift.

“They were cheap, plastic and came in bright pink or teal,” Kenney said. The kick was that the frames were adorned with what appeared to be newspaper stories with the type superimposed over the frame.”

Over the years, he said he has given away dozens to his top journalism students because “their future was so bright, they’d better wear sunglasses.”

Sometimes, students offer a gift to professors to show them how much they mean to them.

In 2003, six years after FGCU opened its doors, Maria Roca, communication professor and founder of the program, received a gift from two students that she said she will never forget.

Lisa and Scott Hadley gave her an award for being “the best teacher in the world” on Dec. 14. The trophy, in the shape of a shooting star, pays homage to Roca always being there for her students and supporting them through anything.

“I was deeply, deeply moved,” Roca said. “It makes you want to hang in there and really remember why you’re here, and just want to keep going for as long as you can.”

And finally, some teachers give gifts to help inspire their students and — although they may not know it at the time — their student’s future students as well.

Kelli Davis, first grade teacher at Heights Elementary School in Fort Myers, got a special book for her 2009 Fort Myers High School graduation.

Jamie Browder, former Fort Myers High School child-care teacher and mentor to Davis, gave her “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” by Dr. Seuss at Davis’ graduation party.

She recalls opening the gifts all at once, not even noticing the unwrapped book at first.

“I looked up to her, and I went to her for advice,” Davis said. “Something must have rubbed off on me.”

That book was the first thing Davis, now a first-grade teacher, received for her classroom. She even used it in an activity earlier this year.

Davis asked her students write down their first-grade dreams on balloons. Then she took a picture of them holding them up and put the pictures around her classroom to show off at the school’s open house.

“In life there will be hard times and good times, but you’ll make it through and you should go for your dreams,” Davis said.

That was the book’s message, Browder’s message to Davis … and now Davis’ message to her students.


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