It finally happened. I got the call that every mom dreads, the one where an unfriendly voice on the other end says, “There’s been a live lice event in the third grade. We checked your son’s head and found really disgusting creepy crawly things so come get him now, quick, because this is grossing us out and we are not saying please.”
After I told the administrator I’d be right over, I thought of all the sheets and pillows and hoodies I’d have to wash. I looked over at the couch cushions and began to plan the bonfire. I wondered where we went wrong. Hadn’t I been clear in my instruction not to try on another boy’s hat?
I looked over at the couch cushions and began to plan the bonfire.
I reminisced about the six school years prior when we’d managed to avoid a “live lice event.” I thought about that girl on my own elementary school bus who boarded one day, so many years before, head cleanly shaven, and how no one would let her sit with them, how everyone had whispered and laughed.
I drove to school, all the while scratching my now itchy head and growing more and more angry at the unnamed mom in my son’s class who was to blame. You know the one—she posted adorable pictures of her kids with their tiny bodies dangling from deep inside one of those giant plush animal heads that are all the rage this Halloween.
Just two days before on Saturday afternoon, I’d seen four different moms post pictures of their little ones’ heads buried inside the infested recesses of unicorn, panda, and chicken heads. All the other moms, myself included, clicked a thumbs up or a plump red heart or the laughing emoji because that’s what we were supposed to do to validate that mom’s existence and besides, the kids did look cute. Those moms got their “likes” and their kids got lice, and now my kid might have it, too.
Those moms got their “likes” and their kids got lice, and now my kid might have it, too.
So, I ask that mom, was it worth it? And what happened to the never-share-your-hairbrush rules my own mother so manically instilled in me? When did we trade hygiene for hype?
When I arrived at school, my son and his best friend sat alone on a bench in the hallway. The office staff stood a safe distance away. Only the principal approached, stretching blue latex gloves over her hands. She offered me a pair, which I defiantly declined. “Are you sure it’s not just his eczema?” I asked. She shook her head, grimacing, and said, “Look for yourself.” I did, without gloves, in part because I wanted them to see there was no way we were like the unclean girl on the bus of my youth, but also because I was certain my son couldn’t have lice.
I would have noticed him scratching his head. Surely, he would have complained about the itch. This is the kid who begs for calamine lotion if there’s a red mark on his ankle from his sock elastic. This is the kid who needs a Band Aid for a bruise. He’s so hyper-sensitive to anything amiss with his body, wouldn’t he have noticed if there was a colony of blood suckers living off his scalp?
I was certain my son couldn’t have lice.
Under the watchful eye of the principal, I dug through my son’s hair. Finding nothing but the usual flaky dry skin that’s never gone away since he was an infant with cradle cap, I asked her what exactly I should be looking for. She pulled her phone out and scrolled through photos of wingless insects embedded in hair and rice-shaped larvae.
I recoiled, pointing out that what was on my son’s scalp did not look anything like the photos. She dug her blue rubber finger into my son’s hair and asked, “What about that?” I picked the flake of skin off and held it up to her, “That’s just skin, like dandruff.” Now she recoiled.
Since I couldn’t convince the principal, I drove my son over to my salon where my hairdresser dug gloveless fingers through his scalp, declaring that indeed, what he had was only flaky skin. There were no bugs to be found. My son was disappointed at the hairdresser’s verdict. When we pulled back into the school parking lot, he said, “Wait, I have to go back to school?” I said yes, and he cried, saying, “Darn. If I had lice, I could go home.”
I, of course, was relieved, but still embarrassed, half-expecting people not to believe that we were “clean” even though I know that logically, catching lice from a hat or hairbrush can happen to the best of us. I thought it had happened to me, so I’m here today to beg all parents to heed my warning: KEEP YOUR KIDS HEADS WHERE YOU CAN SEE THEM! Do not, under any circumstances, allow them to try on winter hats in Kohls, kitten headbands in Forever 21, or plush baby shark heads in Target!
I don’t care how cute they will look on Facebook, but you will care when you’re pulling nits from their luscious locks with a metal comb. Trust me on this. Back to school and Halloween occur too close together, so resist the urge to “hide and eek” this Halloween season and keep your kids’ heads where you can see them.★
Kathleen Buckley is a writer and designer living outside Chicago with her husband and two sons. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Paper Darts, and Superstition Review, and her stories have been selected for inclusion in the Chicago Listen to Your Mother and Expressing Motherhood Shows. She is the Book Reviews Editor for Literarymama.com and holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Roosevelt University. She is currently working on her collection of essays about (dis)belief, motherhood, and the troublesome intersection of the two.