The items that would appear in the Lost and Found box in my classroom were fairly typical of the school as a whole.
- School supplies, especially pencil cases (and other supply-type boxes), loose crayons, colored pencils, and highlighters, and miscellaneous notebooks, used and unused – occasionally with names.
- Insulated lunch bags, often with half-eaten food still inside, for any number of days – rarely with names.
- Present independent reading books – almost always without names. Book club books from the classroom, which at least had the teachers’ names on them.
- Clothing of various sorts, including zippered sweatshirts and hoodies, outer jackets, and baseball caps (which couldn’t be worn in the classroom except on hat day, so it made no sense that they were there).
- Handbags, purses, and wallets. Yep. Occasionally, student identification inside.
- Eyeglasses. Yes. Sometimes for days.
- The odd piece of jewelry: a ring or earring or necklace, generally costume.
- Miscellaneous finds: Rubik’s cubes (which went in and out of popularity), sets of keys, phone chargers, and earbuds galore.
- Project leavings: glue guns, colored paper, rubber bands, colored string, tissue paper, cardboard – whatever was needed for a particular project. Most of this ended up with me.
- Chromebooks and chargers, both together and separate.
- And, very rarely, money, right in the box. Dollars, usually. (More typically, money was given directly to me by honest students; we then tried to find the owner, which was pretty impossible, and so ended up using it for pens or pencils for the classroom – or just giving it to the finder. Yes, some money was likely quickly pocketed, but it seemed that the kids were usually very honest here; then again, I wouldn’t know they found money unless they actually told me, so maybe the odds were really more in favor of the less honest ones.)
There were, of course, different ways these items had to be approached. Handbags and wallets almost always found their owners, and usually pretty quickly; keys and glasses were harder, and usually ended up in the front office. It was easy to match Chromebooks up with their owners through name tags, though usually the students who lost theirs would find their way back to the classroom in a period or two. (Classroom loaner Chromebooks, for students who had forgotten theirs from home, could end up just about anywhere in the school despite teachers’ best efforts to keep them in their classrooms.)
Textbooks without names would be sent back to a teacher in that department for sorting out, as were book club books from the classroom, which almost always had the teachers’ names in them. The students’ own books often spent some time on the shelf under the homework board, in hopes that owners might actually see them – which would mean they were actually looking at the homework board); after a while, they became part of my classroom library.
When students told me that they had found something in or on a desk (which they didn’t always do), I’d hold the item aloft in front of the class or give it a prominent spot in a valiant, but usually unsuccessful, effort to find its owner before adding it to the Lost and Found box in the classroom. As time passed and items weren’t claimed, I would ask a student to add it to the enormous pile near the cafeteria, which could outfit and educate a small city. Every so often, students would go down to search through the detritus accumulating there for something they lost at some vague point in the past, but for the most part, it seemed that the school’s Lost and Found was a type of auto graveyard, filled with individual parts that once meant something but were now nearly worthless. Eventually, unclaimed clothing items would be given away to find, hopefully, a more caring owner.
The missing jackets, in particular, drove me crazy. All the major brands were represented, including North Face, which I knew was quite expensive from the days when my daughters were middle schoolers. How, I wondered, could a child just not come home with a jacket – a North Face jacket, no less – and a parent not notice that said jacket had disappeared? How privileged were these children?
Of course, this eventually came right back at me. About five years into teaching, one of my own children discovered that her favorite mid-weight jacket from the previous spring was missing at the beginning of the next fall – one that probably still fit and had lots of life left to it. After we searched for it in the house, I realized that she must have left it at school just as the weather changed; since it was no longer needed, we just didn’t think about it until it was too late. We did travel to the office looking for it, but it was gone.
I mean, at least I tried to find it, I rationalized. I didn’t just go out and buy another one. But I had to keep reminding myself: These are kids. These are busy parents. They do, for the most part, have more than one jacket – and yes, that might be privileged, but it was also not uncommon for where I lived and where I taught, or for many towns in the state of New Jersey or the United States in general.
And so I tried to keep that reminder at the forefront, even as I still railed against this waste in my mind.
Every once in a while, I’d go through the Lost and Found box in my classroom (very cautiously), just to see if students had put something in there of worth, and there it was one day during my last year of teaching: something of mine. It was an inexpensive piece of costume jewelry, a necklace that had been given to me by my younger daughter, who no longer wanted it, but I loved it, its deep cranberry beads centered on a bright red rose. Its clasp had been weak, though, and somehow it had disappeared off my neck one day – and I didn’t realize it.
I told no one; I was kind of embarrassed that I didn’t realize it was gone. I just removed it from the box and quietly put it in my bag.
It wasn’t the first time I lost something – but that was a lot more important.
Many years before, I was working too late, as usual, before racing home to change and return for parent/teacher conferences. (In later years, I would just come dressed and stay for the day, but my kids were young then, and I wanted to spend some time with them.) When I was almost home, I happened to catch a glance at my hand on the steering wheel – in particular, my right ring finger, where my engagement ring sat . . . with no stone in it. It took me a minute to process what had happened, but then I realized it: my diamond was gone, somehow slipping out from its setting during the course of the day. I had been doing some materials prep near my desk, so I hoped it was there, but I really didn’t expect to every see it again. I called the office and left a message, figuring I would check back upon arrival at the building in another hour.
And there on my desk, in a plastic ziploc bag, sat my stone.
A custodian had found it: the proverbial needle in a haystack. The classroom was somewhat neater than was typical because of those conferences, but the fact that she had found it was hard to fathom. Although it was insured, it had belonged to my grandmother, and thus it had sentimental value. It was a simple stone, mind you – not an entire ring. And not a rock: My grandmother didn’t have that kind of money. I don’t remember, now, whether the custodian was alerted to it by administration, who would have received my frantic message, or just by her own attentiveness to detail, but it was something that stayed with me for a long, long time.
Lost – and found.
It’s a simple simile, really: our students as small, perfectly cut diamonds, just waiting to be discovered. Each of them bright with promise we might never see, might never find; each day a waiting game, a hope that we might glimpse that flash of light, for just a moment, and – even more – help those lost souls to believe that there is something deep inside worth finding.
Thanks to the pandemic, whatever was left inside New Jersey’s schools in mid-March will, most likely, never be matched with their owners. Most of this doesn’t really matter. But there is a lot more at stake.
As my former colleagues struggle through the next six weeks, a little less than half of what is now behind you, please don’t lose yourself in the minutiae. What doesn’t matter can be thrown out or given away.
Just keep your eyes out for any gems in your path.