School is back in session, and for teachers across the country that means crack-of-dawn breakfasts and a desk-full of Granny Smiths. OK, maybe the apple-for-a-teacher thing is less common these days, or only in movies to begin with, but the concept is heavily ingrained in American culture. Why are apples presented to teachers as a gift? Why not plums, peaches, pears, or better yet, a venti sweet cream cold brew (which, to be honest,would be my gift of choice if I had to deal with 20-some-odd children at 8 a.m.)?
It’s hard to pinpoint the significance of apples in academia because, well, apples are symbolic of so many things outside of the classroom. If you want to get biblical, they represent temptation, a shiny red forbidden fruit. Before pumpkin spice everything dominated the market, they were emblematic of autumn. (Granted, apple-harvesting still a pervasive fall activity for the most annoying couples in your Facebook feed.) But when it comes to its history with teachers and students, it may boil down to something simple: sensible sustenance.
It’s sadly unclear precisely when and why students gave apples to their teachers, but the most solid theory is that apples became a common gift to teachers somewhere around the mid-to-late 1800s. Think of those one-room, multi-grade schoolhouses on the prairie and the schoolmarms that fronted them. Very often these were unmarried women who very literally relied on their students families to sustain them; some teachers lived in different student’s houses on a week-to-week basis as a 19th century practice called a “boarding round.” This sort of simple living would come with very simple tokens of affection.
Enter the apple. The fruit was an easily available across the country, and such an exceedingly common crop that even the poorest household could harvest them. Likewise, it’s something that’s small, flavorful, and still incredibly healthy. In short, an apple was the ultimate practical gift, and most likely it became the present of choice for teachers because of said practicality.
Of course, apple-giving very swiftly came with negative connotations, as evident by the term “apple polishing.” The terminology became popular slang among the college set around the 1920s, and Stanford Daily articles shaming “apple polishing” date as far back as 1926. The idea of an “apple polisher” ties back to that concept of gifting a professor a shiny, radiant Red Delicious and paints it as the go-to move for suck-up students.
The most overt example of apple-polishing can be heard in a 1939 Bing Crosby and Connee Boswell duet called “An Apple For Teacher.” The song reinforces that an apple for teacher means one thing: bribery. (And, OK, maybe in this context Crosby is angling to get some after-school time with Miss Boswell). Crosby sings, “an apple for the teacher/to show I'm meek and mild/if you insist on saying/that I'm just a problem child.” Boswell, presumably in the teacher role, is not having it. “I got an apple for the teacher/Gonna meet with great success,” Bing sings. “Well, it won’t if you didn’t memorize the Gettysburg address,” Boswell counters.
There’s a smarminess in there, an implication that maybe the apple will help win the teacher over... and she’ll overlook the fact that you can’t do fractions.
But what actual value does the infamous fruit have in 2016? Because no matter how much the economy sucks, teachers don’t need to be sustained by their students; that’s what ramen is for. Moreover it seems ineffective to win over a teacher with anything apple related (you know, unless you can read your email off it). Why bother keeping this archaic practice around?
Don’t roll your eyes at tradition just yet. Even though it doesn’t give you that sweet cream cold brew zing, it’s worth mentioning that an apple gives you more energy than coffee. That’s right, guys, while the average cup of coffee (sans milk, sugar, and all your favorite trappings) has only approximately 2 calories, a medium-sized apple provides you with legitimate sustenance in the form of roughly 90 to 100 calories, not to mention the fruit is a host of vitamins, minerals, and plenty of good carbs. So not that you caffeine addicts should be substituting your daily coffee run with a batch of McIntoshes, but you know, food for thought.
Perhaps the how of how the apple ended up in academia is irrelevant. In fact, the haziness of the apple’s origins and maybe makes it more impressive as a prevalent symbol: it has tenure in the school system because of its resonance, not it’s history. And for that, the fruit deserves an A+.