the white shirt

by mandaceehb

stories from cambodia: a thank you to mai for your recount that stayed with me

drowsy mornings with half-opened eyes; reaching my hand into the dark closet and grabbing the first white, structured form i see. they’re lined up beside each other: identical white blouses i wear on weekday mornings, neatly pressed and almost pristine. in some conversations we exchange complaints of too-early mornings, but in truth i never feel anything- there is no hardship in routine; routine doesn’t occupy a second thought. fingers race down buttons with practised speed, smooth out creases, pin on the badge aimlessly- i don’t think.

i wonder how different they feel when they put on the white shirt; are their skins awash with renewed gratitude each time? a friend told me how the children there are only admitted into school if they have a white shirt to wear to class; how a single white shirt circulates among siblings for their seat in the classroom, for education to reach some of them on good days.

on some days it is difficult for me to see this shirt as anything but a shackle; confusing me, frightening me, binding me to something i repeatedly do but don’t fully understand. yet this thin fabric is their train ticket to a better life- an object so small and simple, of cloth and thread, is their hope out of this perpetuating cycle of poverty. we could have a hundred white shirts if we wanted to, but they wouldn’t even need one to understand the privilege.

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