The Lunch Box Ooze That Haunts Me

Gather 'round, fellow parents, for I have a cautionary tale to share.

It was March 2020, a time that no one else besides me associates with lice and lunch boxes.

A lingering winter was continuing to weigh down the moods of Vermonters, including myself. A mystery disease was being talked about a lot, but it hadn't yet affected anyone we knew. Life was still mundane.

The Thursday before the world would shut down, I sent my daughter off to pre-K. In the late morning sometime, I was sifting through clothes at a thrift store, wondering if it was still okay to try clothes on despite the mystery disease, when the school called to say my daughter had lice eggs on her head. Apparently another kid in the class had lice, and it was spreading.

My husband arrived at school quickly, which happened to mean he picked her up before lunch was served. My daughter's lunch, which was packed in a bento box, had already been grouped with the other kids' lunches to be passed out midday, so it stayed at school after the two of them left. No problem; we'd pick it up the next day.

But the next day, we decided to keep her home from school for one more day. The lice eggs were probably still in the classroom, we figured. We'd give it until Monday, when any remaining nits in the room would hopefully be dead.

I imagine the lice did indeed die, because by Monday children everywhere were no longer allowed into schools.

There's much to be written about what happened next, as a pandemic closed in around us, but I'm not here to talk about us. I'm here to talk about that bento box, which was still sitting in the school and, presumably unbeknownst to anyone, still had a full serving of lunch in it.

At some point in the weeks that followed, teachers went into the building and gathered students' belongings, placing them into shopping bags for eventual pickup. I imagine they did this quickly and without much deep thought. They weren't supposed to be in the school, they weren't supposed to be with each other. The world was upside down, and it was clear the school year wasn't going to end with kids back in the classroom. So my daughter's abandoned lunch box got scooped up and placed in a bag with everything else, and then it sat. And sat. And then it was June.

The school informed parents via its Facebook page that we should come by the school to fetch our kids' things. The photo that accompanied this announcement will be burned into my memory forever, because it featured a bunch of kids' clothes from the lost and found box, laid out in the lawn, along with all the individual bags of items that the teachers had packed up. The way it was all displayed, it looked like the rapture had happened. No children, just all their clothing and belongings. Including my kid's lunch that I had packed for her three months earlier.

Eventually I picked up my kid's bag. I took things out of it carefully and quietly, like I was excavating relics, because I kind of was. There was a sweatshirt I forgot she had. Winter boots that wouldn't fit anymore by the time she'd play in snow with friends again. Tiny mismatched mittens. Art projects she probably didn't even remember making. And then I noticed it: the ooze.

A black substance had crept onto her extra set of socks, her extra pants, her art, all of it. Sticky and drippy, the black ooze was coming from the bento box. You know, the one I had packed in early March. And as soon as I saw the ooze, I began to smell it, too. Rotten socks. Soggy garbage. Putrid death.

Every object touched by the ooze was a goner, including the bento box itself. I promptly took the entire bag of belongings—mementos from what might have been my daughter's last truly normal school day ever—and threw it all away.

I do not know for sure what was in that bento box, but knowing my daughter's preferences, it was likely some combination of brown rice, black beans, peas, fresh fruit, cherry tomatoes, and/or yogurt. If I could go back in time and somehow do so without vomiting, I might open up the bento box to see how each substance had morphed into ooze. I bet each item had gone rancid a little differently. But I'll never know for sure.

I hope you parents out there don't have any lice eggs or a fresh pandemic ahead of you. I hope there will never be reason for your kid's bento box to sit full and unattended for months on end. Even so, I encourage you to heed my cautionary tale. Keep track of the food containers in your kid's life. Should you ever lose sight of one, begin the search promptly, lest The Ooze find you.