When I was six years old, the week before Christmas break, my first grade teacher gave my class the lecture about head lice. It was the “talk-to-the-parent-through-the-kid” approach: Your parents should clean your hair very well every single night. They should make sure all sheets, towels, hats, gloves, and clothing is squeaky-clean. There had been a lice outbreak in our school, and she told us we needed to keep very, very clean. “We will be doing lice checks on everyone here at school,” she said gravely. She showed us pictures of lice; she talked about how quickly they reproduce and how they would make us feel itchy and uncomfortable. As she spoke, dread settled in my stomach and crawl up to my face and then my hairline. Almost as if I couldn’t control my own hand, I began to scratch the back of my head. I saw Miss Lehman’s eyes flick over to me.
I don’t know who thought telling a group of six-year-olds how to parent our parents on this issue was a good idea, but, well, whatever.
The school nurse knocked on the classroom door a few minutes later. “Send them all out, one at a time,” she told Miss Lehman. “I’ll give them a quick check and send them right back to you.”
Miss Lehman looked right at me. “Honey? Why don’t you go first?” she said.
My face flushed hot as I stood and left the room.
The nurse beckoned to a stool placed right outside the classroom door. She held a box of wooden toothpicks in her gloved hand; she picked one out and placed the rest of the box on a stool next to the chair. I felt the pick on my scalp as she weaved it through my long hair. I listened hard to her breath, hoping it would tell me what she was seeing.
It just took a moment. “I’m going to have you go in and get your things,” she said. “Your mother is going to have to come get you and take you home for the rest of the day, all right?” I nodded numbly. Her voice was kind, but there was an unmistakable condescending tint, which felt like chastisement. I imagined a speech bubble above her head: What a disgusting child you are. Get out of this school and go clean yourself up.
I so did not want to go back in the classroom to retrieve my coat and backpack. Everyone would know I was filthy and itchy; they would whisper about my creepy-crawlies. My mortification was thick, raw, and ugly. I thought I might throw up.
But I was a compliant child, so I pulled myself up from the stool slowly, as if I wore a block of concrete on my feet instead of my raggedy winter boots. I turned, desperate for a last-minute reprieve. “Go on,” she said, nodding toward the door.
I went. It was a very, very long journey to my desk, my cubby, my books and lunchbox, out the door again and toward the office.
I breathed again when I saw my sisters, sitting side-by-side in the office. It hadn’t occurred to me they would be there, too. I was so happy to see them I had to hold myself back from crying. I sat in the empty chair next to my oldest sister. “It’s okay,” she whispered. I nodded.
My mother arrived to pick us up and endured the school nurse’s detailed instructions on what to buy and how to treat our hair and clothing. “Don’t skip any of the steps,” she said, handing over three sealed envelopes, one for each of us. “This explains when the girls can come back to school.”
We left the school, bundled in our winter coats. There was RID, and hot water, and hours at the laundramat. There was even—this was 35 years ago—a head-dunk in kerosene, because my father wanted to make damned sure the lice was gone forever.
It’s annoying when a writer tells what she’s trying to say, because a good writer shouldn’t have to explain herself. But I do it here, just in case, because of course this isn’t about lice, or how much we’ve evolved in the area of lice treatment, or about what’s right or wrong with how we do things. It’s about the snapshots a child will slip into a lifelong photo album.
I’ve never forgotten that day. No one was unkind; no one had ill intentions; no one did anything wrong. It was just this thing that happened, and I remember it as clearly as I remember anything. And I think about that, often, as a mother and educator—about those early memories, and how fiercely they grip.
Children are seeing; they are watching; and they will remember.