Finding my place in the lost and found

The lost and found of an elementary school is a thing to behold, a wonder of the world, a cornucopia of items misplaced, cast off, or simply forgotten.

Anton, my 6-year-old first-grader, is a big supporter of his school's lost and found. He is to the lost and found what philanthropists are to the arts. Rare is the day when he does not return home missing a glove, a scarf, a hat, or even a sock. One sock! If he had lost both there would have been some logical consistency; but how does one sock come off a foot without the other one following it?

In Anton's school, the lost and found consists of two large plastic basins in the front vestibule. They brim with articles of clothing and other personal effects: boots, backpacks, scarves, books, craft projects, stuffed animals, lunch boxes, you name it. Every so often the plastic basins exceed their capacities and the overflow is piled on cafeteria tables, which strain under the weight.

The lost and found serves the same function as a water cooler in an office. It is a gathering place. For parents who sort and paw through the piles like shoppers at a bargain table. And as we sort and paw, we complain, ever so amiably, about the futility of keeping gloves on our kids' hands or boots on their feet. "My son keeps losing the same glove," I sigh to the mom next to me, who counters, "Oh yeah? You're lucky. My son lost his brand new snow suit. We just bought it yesterday!"

At the onset of the recent winter, Anton had begged me - literally begged, with hands clasped - for a knitted Spiderman hat. I gave in. He wore it proudly to school the next day, but when I went to pick him up his noggin was unadorned by Spidey. "Anton," I lamented, "where's your Spiderman hat?"

Like a soul without a care in the world, he smiled and shrugged, then ran off to the playground. As for me, I forlornly made my way to the plastic basins, noodled my way in among the other parents, and began to dig.

As I established my rhythm, my mind drifted back to my own grammar-school experience during the '60s. It was the very height of the baby boom, and there were so many kids in my first- grade class that we had split sessions: half of us went to school in the morning and half in the afternoon. And yet, despite the huddled masses of children, I don't recall anything like a lost and found.

Can it be we never lost anything? I'm sure we did; but it was a materially poorer time, when kids may have owned one good, "school" set of clothes and one or two "play" sets, so the loss of an article of either would be sorely felt. In this sense, I think there was a greater emphasis on taking care of one's clothing.

By contrast, today there seems to be a glut of cheap clothing, creating an atmosphere of quick and affordable replaceability.

As I was picking Anton up from school the other day, I noticed that he was missing one mitten. "Where is it?" I queried, to which he responded with his customary shrug and angelic smile.

I suppose there is some parenting guide that would advise me to make him go through the lost and found in the interest of encouraging a sense of responsibility. But I didn't do this, for the most part because, well, I like rummaging through the lost and found. I like the society of it, the affirmation it gives me that there are other parents experiencing the same travail of keeping track of their children's things.

There is also strong evidence that the lost and found is a pervasive subculture, one which encourages a great degree of allegiance among its patrons.

Two years ago my older son, Alyosha, lost a pair of glasses at an away soccer game. I didn't become aware of this until several days after his return. Of course, my heart sank when I considered the impossibility of retrieving the glasses from a muddy soccer field some 60 miles from home.

Several weeks later, however, a small package arrived in the mail. The glasses! They were accompanied by a note from a caring (and diligent) parent: "These were in our lost and found. One of our kids said they belonged to your son. Last year, my daughter lost her cleats. You are not alone!"

At last, I have found my support group.

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