The school nurse made her way around the classroom with a pair of wooden picks while Sister Mary Clancy watched with critical eyes. I put my head down on my desk, said a Hail Mary, and then felt the tap on my shoulder. The tap meant you needed to stand up at the front of the class with the rest of the dirty kids and wait to be escorted out like an animal with the plague.
This was sixth grade. The grade when you start to use deodorant and wear a bra and think about kissing boys. I was horrified and humiliated, and everybody knew—I had lice. My dreams of being asked out by Ronald Mikos were dashed.
My mother, who was an RN, combed through my hair and screamed at the top of her lungs when she saw a louse run across my scalp. This did nothing to relieve my anxiety.
That’s when my father, a Vietnam Vet, stepped in, with a mini metal comb in one hand and a can of Budweiser in the other. Let’s just say, there were no survivors.
I did what I do with all catastrophic childhood events; I stash them away in a dysfunctional file and blame it on Catholic school.
As my own daughter started elementary school all I could think about was staving off the lice that I knew were waiting for her in the reading nook piled high with fluffy pillows. The name of her school even rhymed with lice, all the moms joked about it at drop-off. I braced myself and prayed to the Sisters of Mercy that we wouldn’t get it: We are clean people, we are good people, please protect us from lice. In the name of the Father…
Just before my daughter’s sixth birthday I noticed a rash behind her ears. I sensed something was off, but I didn’t really want to know about it. She had her Mary Poppins movie theater party that cost an arm and a leg. Not to mention the homemade doll cake that took three days of eBay bidding for the topper, two mom friends, and 12 hours to construct. There was too much at stake.
When we got home from the party, bugs were visibly crawling in her hair. I raced to the supermarket and picked up pesticide-grade lice removal kits and wine. With Catholic guilt about probably infesting the movie theater, I stayed up all night cleaning the house, scrubbing, washing sheets, towels, bedding, coats, scarves, hats, and stuffed animals. I poured olive oil in my hair and glass after glass of pinot noir.
The next day we called in sick to school. I confessed to the nurse that we are dirty sinners and we have lice. Within minutes the “Dear Kindergarten Parents, there has been a reported case of head lice” letter went out. The panic was palpable even over the ether, and I imagined all the moms unfriending me or, even worse, their children unfriending my child.
The next morning at drop-off the kids had greased-back hair and tight braids. I hung my head in shame and made a beeline to the nurse’s office. She takes out the wooden picks and I burst out crying. The nurse hugs me and tells me it is going to be okay. My daughter looks at me like I am crazy. We get the all clear to go back to class and the nurse thanks me for being so honest. Nobody reports lice, she says, for a myriad of reasons.
Outside my daughter’s classroom, I whisper in her ear, “Do not talk about this with the other kids. Do you understand me
“What’s the big deal?” she says. “It’s just lice.”
“It’s a very big deal. It’s not just lice. It’s our reputation.”
She looks at me like I’m a lunatic. “I can’t lie, mom,” she says, and walks away.
I go home knowing that my daughter is telling everybody she has lice. We are now that family. I clean and nitpick (literally) some more and then I start getting pissed off about what the nurse said. “Nobody reports lice for a myriad of reasons.” Really? I outed ourselves for nothing? Suddenly I’m not feeling guilty about the movie theater party.
Two weeks, $500, carpal tunnel syndrome from obsessively combing with that stupid little fucking comb, many tears, a tarnished image, and a three-day hangover—and I won the battle. I vow we will never get lice again.
Flash-forward to the same time next year, only now we live in Seattle instead of Boston. It’s the first week of school and I am out to dinner at a cute little bistro with my daughter. I check my email and see the Subject line: “Lice in the first grade.” I nonchalantly check my daughter’s hair at the table. She blurts out, “Oh no, do we have lice again?” The entire restaurant overhears us, but I just giggle and finish my schnitzel. Yes, we do have lice again, but this time I am adopting the laid-back Pacific Northwest attitude. After dinner, we stop by the organic grocery store.
I approach the groovy-looking dreadlocked hipster in the beauty department and ask her in an unwavering voice where the lice section is. She recommends some essential oils and gives me pointers on how to kill the little fuckers in an environmentally friendly way. We check out with a cart full of hippy-dippy homeopathic remedies and a case of craft beer.
“Looks like I’m going to have a fun night,” I say to the checkout girl. “Are you jealous?”
We laugh and I walk away confident that I have this situation under control. I can wake up lice-free—and save the planet, too. We apply the natural cream and sleep on it.
But we wake up with unbearable itching, rashes, and scratching. The laid-back attitude and natural products didn’t work. I send my daughter to school knowing we are nowhere near the finish line with this round. I comb my hair, clean the apartment, scrub, do laundry, itch, cry, and clean some more. (And why, pray tell, is my husband always mysteriously away on extended business trips during these outbreaks?)
When my daughter gets home from school I wash and comb her hair. She cries, and I cry. I contemplate shaving our heads. I get in the shower and in a last-ditch effort try the essential oil shampoo that the stoned clerk with dreadlocks at the natural market recommended. It smells like tree bark doused in rocket fuel, and it starts to sting my scalp. There on the bottle is a small warning. Less than 1 percent chance of an allergic reaction. I always fall into that less than 1 percent. I feel like I am going to pass out. And then I start to panic. I can’t breath. I am going to have an anaphylactic reaction in the shower over essential oil lice repellant and die while my daughter is watching “Sponge Bob.” And everyone will know. I jump out of the shower and consider dialing 911.
But, instead, I Google marijuana gummy bears and where I can buy them. This is Seattle, after all, and marijuana gummy bears would take my mind off things. But I’m not really sure how that is going to help the situation long term, so I book a hotel room instead. We leave the apartment for the weekend so the lice here have time to die. Screw the hotel. They wash those sheets, like, every day anyway.
I’m pretty sure I’m going to hell for this one, and the Sisters of Mercy can’t save me.