Last summer, my mother cleaned out her jewelry box. She had jewelry of all colors, shapes, and sizes, from rings and earrings to gaudy brooches that I’ve never seen her wear. She has her favorite sets and rarely wears anything else; she loves her diamond pendant necklace and sapphire earrings and of course her wedding rings. We took her old, unwanted, and broken pieces to a local jeweler, hoping to sell them back.
When my mother and I arrived at the jewelry shop, a sales lady dressed in black slacks, a colorful blouse, and a matching black blazer led us to a polished, cherry wood desk in the back corner, away from the display cases. An old man wearing khaki pants and a faded Hawaiian shirt sat down with us. Mom dumped a Ziploc bag of tangled gold chains, mismatched earrings, a few old rings, and several brooches onto the jeweler’s desk.
“How much can I get for all this?” she asked. The old man sifted through the items, untangled thin gold chains, and examined each earring for traces of gold. He set aside pieces he could take and handed the others back to my mom.
“Really? Nothing for this?” Mom asked as she picked up a large, rose-shaped brooch.
“Nope. It’s acrylic,” the jeweler said. He was almost finished examining the items when he picked up a white ring with a small, dark red stone on top. He held it to his magnifying eyeglass and read the words engraved around the stone.
“Oh, that’s my high school ring,” Mom said. The old man raised an eyebrow.
“You don’t want it?”
Mom shook her head, and the man looked at the ring again. “That’s white gold,” he said. He twiddled the ring between his old, worn fingers. “Fourteen karats. Nice. You’re absolutely sure you don’t want it?”
“I’m positive,” Mom said, nodding. The old man placed the ring back on the table and then gathered the rest of the unwanted jewelry.
But before he took the ring away, I took it and slid it over my own finger, just to see how it looked on my younger hand. Its slender band felt light against my skin, and it didn’t look overwhelmingly large; the red stone glinted in the fluorescent light. I wondered what kind of stone it was: ruby, garnet, or maybe a synthetic stone made to look like a ruby or garnet. The words Southview Academy 1979 circled the red stone. It sounded so pretentious, but I knew it wasn’t. There was nothing pretentious about Wadesboro, North Carolina. Southview Academy doesn’t even exist anymore; it closed as a school in 1986 and became a penitentiary for juvenile delinquents shortly thereafter. Mom drove me by the property the last time we visited her hometown. Even from the outside, it looked dreadful.
Mom never said much about her small-town private high school, except that she was a cheerleader, played basketball and softball, and was her class’ valedictorian. It sounded like a good four years in my mind. When I started ninth grade at my new school in Pennsylvania, I asked Mom if high school really is the best four years of your life, as the old adage goes. My dad’s job with Wyeth Pharmaceuticals, which is now Pfizer, had just transferred us from Atlanta to Philadelphia—a move none of us wanted to make—and I needed something to be hopeful about.
“Yeah, it’s fun,” she’d said. But I wasn’t sure if I believed her. She was probably trying to ease my unhappiness over our move.
Four years later, I no longer believed her.
Class rings have always seemed like a strange idea to me, especially in high school. Maybe it’s because I’ve never worn rings, or any kind of jewelry. I don’t like having extra weight on my fingers. Anything more than my usual watch and a hair tie, and occasionally my charm bracelet, feels foreign and unnecessary. Or maybe it’s because I’d rather forget my high school years. I can’t imagine thinking about high school every time I catch a glimpse of that ring on my finger.
The old man bent down in his chair and reached for something beneath his desk. He popped up a moment later with a scale and a small metallic bowl. He assembled the scale and dropped the chains and rings into the bowl with a soft clack.
“It’ll be just a few minutes, ma’am,” he said with a smile.
“We’re in no hurry,” Mom said.
My mind wandered again. If only there was another way to rid myself of unwanted memories. Would collateral count? I thought back to memories that, if I had the option, I would purge from my mind. I imagined the scene from J.K. Rowling’s fourth Harry Potter novel in which the great wizard Dumbledore touches the tip of his wand to his temple and extracts with it long silver streams of memories. “I sometimes find, and I am sure you know the feeling,” he says to Harry, “that I simply have too many thoughts and memories crammed into my mind.” How easy would it be, then? The memories could go into a Pensieve, just like Dumbledore’s, and I wouldn’t have to look at them again if I so chose. Wizards have it so easy.
I kept thinking. What if that token didn’t have to be a ring? Other objects could be melted down and the memories purged just as easily as the jewelry. If that were the case, then my options were limitless.
I thought back to my high school teachers, especially the ones I didn’t favor as much as others. Case in point: Mr. Garman. Chemistry already had a bad reputation in my mind, but having the spawn of Satan for Honors Chemistry certainly didn’t help that reputation. During tests, Mr. Garman liked to meander around his classroom with a box of Kleenex and taunt us as we struggled through pages of onerous problems. “Anyone need a tissue yet?” he’d ask. I almost took one once, but showing weakness probably wouldn’t have helped my pursuit of passing his class. Beyond his tiresome lectures and demands to memorize the periodic table and ionic compounds, Mr. Garman had an extreme fondness for his red pen. Returned tests and assignments from him always sent me into a nervous wreck. One time, I asked him if a small animal had died on top of my test because of all the red marks scribbled across the pages. He thought I was joking. “You amuse me, Miss Robertson,” he’d say. Garman’s voice still boomed like a cannon in the depths of my memory. I wish I could say the same about you, sir. Thinking about your class again makes me want one of your tissues…and a really stiff Jack and ginger.
How nice would it be if I could trash my recollections of Mr. Eric Garman and Honors Chemistry just as I trashed my notes and tests when the class was finished? A year of ionic compounds, covalent bonds, noble gases, and more, gone from my memory, just like that.
Mom tapped the desk with her fingers. Her gold charm bracelet bounced lightly as her fingers rolled up and down. My eyes focused on the charms; she has at least one from everywhere she’s been, every important milestone, and anything near and dear. Her tennis racquet charm jangled against a gold Georgia peach.
I don’t know if I love tennis enough to put it on my charm bracelet or to have racquets engraved on a class ring. I played for my high school team, and as much as I’d like to say I loved it, I didn’t. I should have stopped after my junior season and finished on top. That year, I played second doubles with an incredible partner, Jamie. When we took the court together, we were nearly unstoppable. Our 13-1 record was proof. I earned my first varsity letter and helped lead my team to an undefeated season and league championship.
The next year, Jamie moved up to singles, and I had to find a new partner. After playing my challenges, I was paired with a freshman named Jessie. A freshman on varsity didn’t sound too hopeful, but my coach promised it would work just fine. I wanted to believe him, but something about Jessie’s self-important, I’m-cooler-than-you attitude irked me. But it’s not like I had other options. I sucked it up and tried to make the best of it.
Our on-court chemistry was no better than my chemistry in Mr. Garman’s class. Jessie always thought she knew better than me. Every loss became my fault. She either swung for the fence or barely popped the ball over the net and got me nailed in return. “It’s your damn backhand volley,” she scolded after a crippling, three-set loss to our conference rival. My final shot had sailed an inch too long, and as soon as I saw our opponents signal it out, my stomach dropped. My team needed our doubles to win to take the match. As I packed my bag and loaded my car, I thought I heard a snippy voice say, “Thanks for costing us the match.” I tried talking to my coach about my concerns, but he claimed it was too late in the season to change the lineup. He just didn’t want to deal with the drama, and changing the lineup made a good cover-up. My 13-1 record plummeted to 4-10. My season crumbled, and the minute I walked off the court after my last match, I handed my racquet to my mom and told her to hide it.
So when I received my second varsity letter, I didn’t feel accomplished. I wanted to remember dominance, not bitterness. Varsity letters don’t mean much when they’re associated with harsh moments, even when good exists. My letters would be next on the burn pile.
“When we finish here, we’re going to find some lunch,” Mom said, snapping me out of my daydreams. “My stomach says so.”
I nodded, and then yawned. A third cup of coffee earlier that morning would have been a winning idea. I imagined sitting at the breakfast room table with the newspaper in front of me, and my Cavern Club mug full of hot Colombian caffeine with a splash of half-and-half.
I like my Cavern Club mug. That’s where The Beatles played their first shows in Liverpool, before they became an international sensation. The mug had been a seventeenth birthday present from my old boyfriend, Mark; his dad had brought it back from a business trip. Owning an item from such a famous place felt kind of surreal. But now, it’s hard to think of it as a birthday present. I can’t shake myself of the boy who gave it to me. That mug doesn’t remind me of smiles or hugs or kisses, like a birthday gift should. Instead, when I hold the mug, I feel rough hands on my hips and see menacing green eyes filled with bad intentions. All for a measly cup of coffee.
Sometimes when I take the Cavern Club mug from the cabinet, I consider letting it shatter on the floor. Maybe one day, I will drop it. And then I’ll burn its black and white ceramic shards in my memory fire and purge those eyes from my mind.
“All right, ma’am,” the old man said. “It’s all done.” Mom reached out and took her ring one last time. She eyed it, and then sighed and handed it to the old man at the shop. I wondered what would become of it. Surely it would be melted down and poured into a mold for some other piece of jewelry. A piece of Southview Academy Class of 1979 will find its place in some stranger’s watch or necklace.
I’m still contemplating buying a college ring. A part of me wants one because I strongly favor my college experience over my high school years. But what’s not to say the same thing wouldn’t happen to me twenty or more years down the road? What’s not to say that, one day, those memories—friends, sports, professors, parties—won’t grow stale and I’ll grow tired of wearing that ring, too? Then, I’ll place it carefully back in its velvet box, slide it in the silk cushions, snap the box closed, and set it aside while I figure out a better place to store it. And then, “finding a better place for it” will turn into “shoving it out of the way so it won’t take up space on my dresser.” Soon enough, I’ll be driving to my local jewelry store to sell back my unwanted pieces. They’ll become melted gold, and I’ll wonder where my memories will end up. While I wait for the old man at the jewelry store to measure and weigh my unwanted gold, I might look down at my watch and wonder whose memories are wrapped around my wrist. Maybe I’ll wear someone’s record-breaking high school track and field career, or someone else’s winning science fair project, or someone’s first interaction with his high school sweetheart. The jeweler, perhaps an old man like the one who helped Mom, will ask me if I’m sure I want to give it up. “Yes, I’m sure,” I’ll say, because I don’t wear those memories anymore. I’ll sell them back for $125 and move on with my life.
Mom tapped me on the shoulder and started to stand up.
“Is there anything else I can do for you today?” the old man asked.
“Not today. I need to come back for some appraisals, though,” Mom said. “I’ll take care of that later this fall.”
The old man smiled and wished us a good day. As we walked toward the door, Mom stopped to admire a collection of bracelets in the glass display case. She pointed to a thicker gold chain with sapphire studs.
“That’s pretty,” I commented.
“Mmm, it is.” Mom eyed the bracelet like a cat watching its prey. Then she turned away. “I’ll look at it another time. Let’s go.”
I pushed the shop door open, and the sharp scent of polish dissolved into the smell of asphalt and suburbia. Mom asked me if I had a taste for anything in particular for lunch; I suggested sandwiches. As we drove away from the jewelers, my mind drifted from her school ring, to Wadesboro, North Carolina, and my mother’s past now locked away in the gray building that was once Southview Academy.