I remember the first glimpse of movement in my son's hair. Mixed with my horror was an odd sense of discovery, as though I'd stumbled upon aliens disembarking from their saucer. So that's what they look like, I thought, recalling that part in To Kill a Mockingbird, when Scout's teacher recoils from a "cootie."
"I was just walking by," the teacher, Miss Caroline, says desperately, "when it crawled out of his hair...."
I was just walking my two boys home from the bus stop when I noticed the oldest one scratching.
"I don't think I rinsed out the shampoo very well," he told me. Since turning 7, he's been showering on his own.
A month before, his teacher had sent home a backpack letter announcing a case of head lice in the classroom. We'd checked his head for several days, found nothing, and forgotten about it. Now, as he scratched furiously all the way to the back door, I decided to take a closer look.
I knelt behind him on the kitchen doormat where a square of sunlight illuminated the top of his head. Pushing aside his itchy fingers, I searched his scalp nervously, noting the tiny flecks, like sticky crumbs, that wouldn't brush out. Then my stomach turned over. A tiny insect, yellowish and spade-shaped, was crawling up a single hair. As my horrified eyes swept his scalp, I saw movement everywhere - faint and undulating, like a breeze in the grass.
"Stay where you are."
I called his younger brother onto the sunny rug. A quick check revealed a solitary bug marching leisurely through his fine brown hair. I strode to the phone and called my husband.
"Better come home," I barked. "We've got lice."
Remember Scout's classmate Burris Ewell? He was the filthiest human [she] had ever seen. His neck was dark gray, the backs of his hands were rusty, and his fingernails were black deep into the quick.
Fragments from that infamous description struck me as I stood there, wondering what to do next. Bugs in the hair! Fact and fiction swirled together. What had the letter from school said? Head lice may occur in the cleanest of families. ("Burris, I want you to go home and wash your hair with lye soap.") What else? A single application of Nix is usually sufficient. ("When you've done that, Burris, treat your scalp with kerosene.") Children may be sent home if the school nurse finds any remaining nits. ("You see, Burris, the other children might catch them, and you wouldn't want that, would you?")
The eldest boy drooped against the back door, his eyebrows drawn up, his mouth curved down like a sad circus clown's. The 5-year-old, who loves insects of all kinds, fixed me with a calm yet eager gaze. I knew this was one of those pivotal moments, when my reaction would make all the difference. It wasn't their fault. It wasn't even an emergency. But I was so disgusted. Oh my God, I thought, I have failed at something as basic as keeping my kids clean.
I clapped my hands together briskly.
"Out on the porch guys! It's haircut time!"
Never mind that they'd probably been infested (oh, horrible word!) for days (oh, horrible thought!). The hair had to go. My older son covered his face and wailed. He loves his thick, tousled mop.
"Not your fault!" I shouted, as I sprinted down the stairs in search of the electric clippers.
The next hour passed in a blur of anguish. The hum of electric clippers on the front porch. Sheaves of fine brown hair falling over my orange sweatshirt. My youngest boy, stoic and shaved like an Army recruit, meeting my eyes steadily. The oldest, sobbing and angry, crying, "It's all your fault, Mom!"
"Hold still," I hollered, as I struggled with the clippers.
Sweep, sweep. Tufts of hair scattered among the October leaves in the yard. The boys looked at me with shorn scalps and sad, refugee eyes.
It was all wrong, and I knew it. But swamped by waves of panic and shame, I couldn't seem to grab hold of logic. Rick left work early and came home with the de-lousing shampoo. He took over with the boys, while I called the school nurse, who sounded bored as she recited the drill: Wash the hair. Check for nits (louse eggs; the "sticky crumbs" that won't brush off the hair shaft). Send them to school in the morning.
"You don't have to cut their hair or anything," she reminded me.
"Sure, I know that!" I chuckled, wiping away tears.
I called to notify the parent of a close playmate. She dismissed it as "just part of childhood" (saintly woman! but did I detect a note of exasperation in her voice? She had three boys - each one was a potential victim).
That night, we tucked the boys into the guest bed, their shared room stripped of everything but mattresses and furniture. This was overkill, according to the Harvard School of Public Health. Rick had been perusing their website while I staggered up and down the stairs with loads of curtains, bedding, clothing, and stuffed animals.
"You don't have to do that," he called, as I emptied drawers and unzipped slipcovers. "It says to just wash key items in hot water." I ignored him. Stuffing fleece dinosaur pajamas into the laundry bag, I'd spotted a louse crawling along the neckline. They're everywhere! The closet had muffled my scream.
Later, as I lay flat on the living room floor with a rhythmic throbbing in my lower back, I searched for someone to blame. Who had started this thing? Who was the dirtiest kid in my son's class? But wait - that line of thinking didn't help, because if lice liked dirty people, and my kids had them, that must mean we were dirty, too.
If only To Kill a Mockingbird had not been one of my favorite books, savored - ironically - for its message of tolerance! If only Harper Lee had not bestowed head lice upon the savage, filthy Ewell family. If only my mother had not asked, "Are you keeping the boys real clean?" If only I had no prejudices of my own.
The following day, my petty curiosity about who'd started the lice was unexpectedly satisfied. I'd decided to pick the boys up from school (to spare fellow bus-riders). They climbed glumly into the back seat.
"The other kids felt sorry about my lice,'" reported my oldest son. But how...?
The teacher, he said, had announced his lice to the class. There went my hope of keeping the family pestilence under wraps.
"I didn't really like that she did that, Mom," he said, wearing the look of miserable disillusionment that hadn't left his face in 24 hours.
"Certainly not, and neither do I."
I punched the teacher's number into my cell phone.
Oh dear, she said. I'm sorry.
"After all," I reminded her, "you didn't share the first kid's case with the class!" I couldn't help myself. "So who did have it first?"
She didn't hesitate, that 20-year teaching veteran.
"It was Amy. But the kids knew that. Her dad, Dr. Billings, brought some of her lice in to look at under the microscope."
"Remember," she said. "Lice don't mean you're dirty...."
At the end of that day, I joined Rick at the computer. By now I was deeply regretting how I'd handled things. Amy Billings had not shouted, "No, Mom!" as the electric clippers were fired up on the front porch. Her parents had not thrown every item of her clothing into the side yard, to be slowly retrieved and washed as the days went by. No, Dr. Billings and his wife, both science professors, had turned their daughter's lice infestation into a teachable moment. And not just for her - the class as a whole had benefited from this benevolent approach.
I was ashamed of my shame. Information and logic, I decided, would prevail. I wasn't a scientist, but the humanities provided a fine background for questioning and understanding the human condition. And so I read, in order to become enlightened.
Human head lice, I discovered, do not hop. Human head lice do not come from animals. Human head lice are "equal-opportunity parasites," according to Richard J. Pollack, Ph.D., whose informational statement on head lice is posted on the Harvard Public Health website. Human head lice, in fact, are "exquisitely adapted" to living on humans, with "six impressive legs elegantly evolved to grab hair shafts." Dried-up remains of human head lice have been recovered from prehistoric mummies.
Reading all this made me feel better. I even grew interested. And then, scrolling down, I read, "Lice on children's heads by themselves should not be cause for schools or courts to brand parents as neglectful or abusive." You mean - there was a danger of that? Apparently so. "We are aware of several cases where the courts have ordered children removed from the custody of their parents because of their apparent failure to eliminate the infestations."
The word neglect hit me hard. I'd always believed that loving my kids meant ignoring neatnik tendencies. My job was to show them how to lob spirals over the play structure, not swipe furniture with a rag. I never thought, because they or the house weren't pristine, that meant I was neglecting them. I flailed around, wondering what my priorities should be from now on. Just how dirty, on a scale of one to ten, were we?
Meanwhile, the boys endured their own humiliations. "Poor thing, you have head lice," said a classmate to my second-grader. Kids laughed when my kindergartner walked into his classroom, looking like Jake Gyllenhaal in Jarhead. The boys glumly recounted these incidents during our daily nit-picking sessions at the kitchen table. I knew I'd failed them, and I tried to adopt a more breezy, sanguine attitude, but every time I found a nit, I let out a gasp - better than an oath, but still.
The pesky critters finally disappeared for good some months ago, though my eyes still rove over the tops of the boys' heads when they're eating cereal or brushing their teeth. I've often wondered what I'd do if I saw that tell-tale movement again, faint as breath on a leaf. I hope things would be different. Believe me, I've been shocked by my own lack of self-control, feelings of inadequacy and deep-seated ignorance. And yet, I'm still disgusted by head lice. I can't help it. I don't want to see one under a microscope. I don't want to see one ever again in the fine brown hair of my young sons.
In my quest for information, I came across something that comforted me more than all the facts and the scientific detachment offered by the Harvard Public Health website. I think I read it on the instruction sheet that came in the box of lice-removal shampoo. I wish I could quote it verbatim. But I remember it went pretty much like this: As a parent, you may feel overwhelmed and upset, your nerves stretched to the breaking point. This is a normal reaction to head lice infestation.
Sometimes it helps to remember that we are only human.