(cont. from Part I)
The Lost and Found box in the school dispensary is a moldy mountain of polyester uniform pieces and orphaned mittens.
The mother superior of the dispensary, Mrs. Whittaker, doles out Ritalin, reads thermometers, and is the gatekeeper of the Lost and Found.
“Do those shorts have your name on them?”
I was honest.
“Frost*,” is permanent markered onto the waistband of the shorts in question. Frost as in Tim Frost, then in the 6th grade and also our community newspaper delivery boy.
“Okay, then you have to bring them back after class,” said Mrs. Whittaker.
So I do. I arrive to school on gym day and scavenge through the moldy abyss for the Frost pair. They are kind of blousy but at least they cannot be mistaken for a bandana. I rock them for an hour of dodgeball and then return them to being lost. Why I don’t just cross out “Frost” and write my own name on them, I cannot say. Just a rule-follower I guess.
And then there was the matter of how I had stapled my hand to a bulletin board in 4th grade and Mrs. Whittaker rode in like a hero, extracting the staple from my hand using her long sculpted fingernails. I just imagine those fingernails every time I think about claiming the borrowed shorts as my own.
Week after week I do the dumpster dive for the shorts and then I put them back. The shorts never get washed the whole year. I see Tim Frost on the school bus everyday; monthly he rides his mountain bike to our house to collect the $2.25 for his paper route. I fumble around our change drawer, searching for the quarters, feeling equal parts shame and kinship toward him. I am finding and using the clothes that he probably has no idea he has lost.
For all I know, there are others who were, too. The lost and found box is equal opportunity, after all. Gross.
In the usual end-of-year mayhem, I muster up the moxie to just not return the shorts. I keep them for all of 8th grade. To spite my mother, I never change the name on the shorts. With each load of uniform laundry, I hope that the jock itch will be washed out of the shorts and a sense of guilt will wash over my mother. (Mom, I am so sorry you had to raise satan’s spawn.)
Several years later, I will ask Tim Frost to a school dance. My mom tells me to go vacuum out the mini-van before I pick him up as my date. We have already shared gym shorts, I think. I don’t think he’s going to be scandalized by a leftover juicebox in our van.
Every day is a holy day of obligation in my family: obligations to help, to not complain, to eat everything on one’s plate. The gym shorts, I know, were an opportunity for me to suffer in silence. Just like my mom did when she was my age and her mother gave her a bad home perm. Just like my dad did when his own father died and his mother couldn’t afford anything but an ill-fitting blazer for school. I know the consequences of complaining: I will be met by these stories of my parents’ woeful adolescences. There are penances for every misdeed and an accompanying sense of guilt over which one will stew for a long shameful season.
In this way, I feel as though my upbringing well prepared me to be the daughter-in-law of Korean immigrants. Korean culture, like many cultures infused with Confucian values, deals in a currency of honor, indebtedness and strength. My parents never coddled us and rarely indulged us. They provided for us, but we were forever in a position to be more grateful and to show a stronger sense of duty. The stories of the people my parents served in their workplaces were sobering: families ripped apart by drugs, Social Security benefits extorted from the mentally retarded, children abused and neglected and handed over to the state foster system. Someone always had things way worse. So be grateful. Buck up. Go put on your gym shorts and come back when you have a real problem.
*names changed to protect the innocent