Frantic text messages. Whispers in parking lots. A night-time run on Rite Aid.
It was the lice scare of Fall 2013.
The bomb exploded casually, delivered as an afternoon email like so many afternoon emails before it. Those previous messages included tuition reminders or the calendar of summer “spirit days.” This message was just like those, except it was awful.
This message announced two confirmed cases of lice in two separate classrooms. It detailed the cleaning measures that would be taken in response. It advised parents that all of their children’s belongings were being sent home for power washing.
The reaction was immediate. It borrowed from the “shock and awe” doctrine of recent American wars. Laundry rooms were put on high alert.
As mothers quarantined children to the room with the least amount of upholstered furniture, fathers secured search-and-destroy hair products. Any household item capable of being squeezed was sent to the nearest trash bag. It was family bonding, lock-down version, as multiple generations fought together against white specks the size of, well, a speck.
White is the color of angels, and “speck” is most commonly used to measure dust. So how can a white speck be so devastating? Because lice is as contagious as a case of the giggles, and it’s as hard to eradicate as a case of the Mondays in a week made up entirely of Mondays.
I speak from experience. I came home from my first summer of sleep-away camp with lifelong friends, happy memories, and lice. I believe I got it during a particularly unsuccessful game of leap frog.
As the oldest of four girls who liked their hair long and their sleepovers often, once lice passed our front door, it booked an extended stay. There were multiple nights of poison showers, followed by hours of hair-brushing using the teeth of an angry carpenter’s tool. At least, that’s what the medicated “shampoo” and companion “comb” felt like to my raw, red scalp.
After a series of treatments, we finally turned the lice corner. By that time, my sisters and I carried ourselves as if we always had stiff necks, our hard-learned hyper-vigilance keeping us from contacting anyone else’s head, or anything their head may have ever touched. If they had given awards for “Best Posture on the Bus,” we would have swept the category for a decade. I’m not sure we hugged anyone until post-Y2K.
I know this much is true: I know that lice do not care if you wash your hair daily or your clothes in fiery rivers of bleach. I know that lice are single-mindedly focused on whether you have productive hair follicles. I know that getting lice is not a question of fault or blame. I also know why the caged bird sings, but that’s for another time and essay.
That knowledge explains the hysteria I witnessed, and participated in, over the course of last week. I metaphorically ran down the street screaming with my hands waving madly above my head because I knew that once lice hit, it was going to hit hard, and it was going to leave a mark. I wanted to know who the poor affected children were, because I wanted to handicap the odds my children were especially vulnerable, based on the radius of their play circumference in relation to said children, divided by Pi. Or something like that.
On the outside, I was the smiling, confident mother, sending her itch-free children out into the wide world of communicable parasites. On the inside, I was curled up in my brain’s panic room, bemoaning my young children’s inability to comprehend the dangers of a shared headband or prolonged hug. Somewhere in between, I thanked my husband for getting me an unlimited text messaging plan.
I still have no idea which parent(s) now understand the joy of the lice comb. With the perspective of time, I know it doesn’t matter, and that the inquiry was just a way to distract myself from the real worry: that someday, perhaps someday soon, that parent would be me. And that I would then have to teach my children about living in a house without plush toys, linens, or furniture.