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I have a little brass cotter pin on my key ring. It used to be part of the locker key you see in the picture, the one with the bright-orange head. I got the key almost 25 years ago, when I enrolled at the University of Texas School of Law in Austin. First-year law school, as it turns out, is a lot more like high school than you might expect — everyone has the same schedule and the same classes, and there are bells and cliques and intramural sports and locker assignments.

You’re supposed to turn in your locker key in when you leave the law school. But nobody asked me to, so I didn’t. I didn’t have a locker for it to open anymore, but it was still useful: I would open letters with it sometimes, or employ it as a makeshift screwdriver, or to pry up the lids on paint cans. When I got bored, sometimes I held the key and spun the other keys on my chain around and around.

Sometimes people noticed the key and asked me why I had it. I told them it was to remind me that, whatever else might happen to me, I will never be as miserable as I was when I was a first-year law student.

The cotter pin separated from the rest of the key a few years back. I didn’t want to lose the key, so I put it in a cubbyhole in my desk. But I still have the cotter pin on my keychain, although I can’t really say why. It doesn’t remind me of anything, except that the key is broken. Maybe that’s enough.