For 11 years, I lived on 288 square inches. Its perimeter was more a suggestion than a boundary: inevitably I spilled over its edges, extended wings over corners, and, when brushed by a breeze, lifted away, though always only for a second or two before returning to rest again, drawn back by the weight of magnets (34). Some people have refrigerators. Some have bedroom walls. I had a board, suspended by a thin cord over my desk; a board, for over a decade, that was me.
Technically, it was a whiteboard, though it was so layered by the strata of my personal history that its base had become invisible. On the left, the POSTCARDS (8): two Van Goghs, two Monets, a Klimt, a Renoir, two monochrome photographs of Korean temples over water. The Van Goghs, ribbed and glossy, always reflected a ring of light from the desk lamp below or the windows to their left. Toned warm by deep blues, greens, and starry yellows, their shimmering heat radiated outwards and touched all the other postcards, casting them, too, in the warm light of home. They were some of the oldest pieces on the board, bought eight years ago by my father on my first visit to the NYC MoMA. There, I had danced with Matisse’s jubilant women and sketched Cezanne’s pines and sat on a low bench to marvel at the long walls of lilies…which brings me to the Monet, which was not unlike the board itself: blurry, impressionistic, a portrait cohesive only from a distance. The Renoir, Girls at the Piano, a gift from my piano teacher who made me love Beethoven and Brahms. The Korean temples, a gift from my mother, who—born in Seoul but raised overseas—now watches her K-dramas with English subtitles.
On that note, the CAT MAGNETS (7): three cat-faced Venetian masks and four flat Japanese ones. Each a travel souvenir gifted by my Korean teacher of ten years, who represented my parents’ failed experiment to teach their daughter the language they never mastered. A stubborn child who clung to the only nationality she had on file—American—I closed myself off to my teacher’s efforts. With lesson plans off the table, a shared love of cats, not language, formed the greater part of our relationship. Ten years of classes, and I have little to show for it: no formal understanding of grammar, a vocabulary to match a third-grader’s, and a habit of affronting elders with my poor honorific speech. Also, seven magnets.
PURPLE WAD (1), POLAROID (1), LILAC CROCHET SQUARE (1). All relics of friendship, beginning with Jamie—my first childhood best friend—and our mutual interest in crafts and strange concoctions. The purple wad, a mixture we made as children and sold at school fairs, was a deep purple, exceptionally sticky imitation of BluTack. I kept it on the board because I was fascinated with how it never lost its stickiness: it remained pliant and gummy for years. The Polaroid featured my other childhood best friend, Kristin, who moved away in fifth grade. Three or four times a year, I saw her in person: the rest of the time, I had the Polaroid. The lilac crochet square, which Teri made in middle school, is riddled with holes and dropped stitches. Though she’s since graduated to mastering traditional Korean embroidery, I kept the flawed square on the board, a reminder of slow beginnings.
POST-ITS (many). My favorite is a small yellow rectangle: 소진, my name in Korean. My grandmother wrote and left it as a label—on a receipt, maybe, or refrigerated leftovers—during my senior year. It was never meant to be kept, but I pinned it to the board because 소진 never belonged to me. No documentation exists to confirm my Koreanness, except for this note, ink dashed off quickly by a grandmother between chores. CLIPPING (1). A black-and-white picture (all the board’s pictures of Korea are in black and white) printed in The New York Times, taken in 1864, of the Seoul landmark Dongnimmun Gate five minutes from my house. Today, it is fenced in on every side by apartments and markets. In the picture, however, the apartments are mountains again and people lead donkeys through the street, their hanboks stiff in the wind.
44,421. The number of minutes I read in the summer of fifth grade, pinned to the board on a scrap of paper for safekeeping. I recorded the minutes for a Scholastic reading contest, then left it there for the next seven years: I wanted to be remembered as a reader. LIST (1), of study tips. DIAGRAM (1), of the brain, which I put up when I realized my interest in neuroscience. ENVELOPE (1), with a writing prize—the certificate that made me a Writer. SCHOOL MAGNET (1), bearing the crest of my school from junior kindergarten to twelfth grade.
Some things came on and off the board in rotation. Birthday cards, seasonally. Every year’s new class schedule. New post-its with words I liked (“excavated”) and reminders, mostly aggressive and academic (“DON’T underestimate zero!!”), which stayed for as long as their adhesives would allow. I never truly looked at the board. It became part of the body onto which I projected my identity: just as my hands were mine, the board was mine.
Except on June 14, it was not. Two weeks before moving out for college. I know the date because I took a photograph of the board, for it really was just a board again, empty and as willing to embody another person’s life as it had mine. White again, blank again. I had gotten used to loss in June: moving meant losing the fridge that was older than me, the picnic table where we’d had holiday dinners, the kitchen table where I’d eaten nearly every day of my life. But the dismantling of the board bordered on destructive, like self-erasure. How could I place my self without the anchor I had moored it to for so long?
The board was the physical representation of my fluid self, external and internal: there lay the web of my friendships and family, my spare thoughts on yellow paper, evidence of my personality and interests, a disordered timeline of my history. Day by day it had grown and shed, expanding more than it contracted as I learned, saw, and did more, and learned better what I was not. Growing up, changing by the second, it was reassuring to have the board as evidence of something less impermanent, to be able to see myself laid out before me and say clearly what had been removed or added. I knew each item: its history, its maker, its meaning. At a glance, they reminded me of myself, kept my memories safe, told me who I loved and what I valued. Now in a box, the postcards and magnets and knickknacks and papers—stacked, skewed, tossed, invisible—became a confused and unintelligible mess. I took the empty board down. It told me nothing.
June passed. I had no board. July passed. I had no board. August—and no board.
Now: three months later, a dorm room to myself, the box in the corner. Three weeks into college, and my walls are still bare. I’ve thought about it a lot, that board—the box—but I haven’t opened it yet.
The thing is, I haven’t had to. 11 years of sitting in front of that board taught me a narrative of myself I hadn’t known I could articulate. Now I have my words. College is strange: every day, I meet new people. There are always new people. I introduce myself, I explain who I am, I tell my story to the people who ask for it. I think about the board. I’d like to put it all back up. I miss the colors, the cohesive chaos, the safe landing. Remembering helps me. But—for now at least—I might leave the box there. I don’t need it anymore.