At 11:50 a.m. the phone rang.
"Mr. Lovett, this is your son's school calling. I'm afraid I have some bad news for you."
The nameless voice, deep for a woman, combined a somber determination edged with fear at its appointed task. I felt my Irish sense of tragedy encroach reason. Rory has been hit by a car. They go so damn fast on that road. Maybe Aaron. He's broken his leg at soccer. No, No. They were kidnapped!
Wha, wha, what has happened?"
A long pause. I imagined the voice was choosing the best way to tell me about the kidnapping.
"Mr. Lovett, (clearing of throat) we've found (here the voice almost faded out) head lice on Rory."
"What did you say?"
"We've found head lice on your son."
Is that all, I thought. I said, "Oh."
She paused again. I felt I should say something, but every thought I had seemed inappropriate, such as: How many did you find?
All I could manage was a weak, "Oh head lice, eh."
My guarded response freed the voice of the school from apprehension, into a speedy recitation of what should be done. I was so relieved my sons were not kidnapped I could not follow all the details. The list included calling the doctor, getting a special shampoo, a fine-tooth comb for nits, the necessity of getting a note from the doctor that Rory was no longer infested, and picking him up as soon as possible in the school's health suite, where he was being held.
The words infested and held echoed in my head. All I could say was, "Oh.
Yes. Okay," and hung up without a good-bye.
What the hell is going on? This is his third day of school and he is being "held" because he is "infested." My heart went out to my first grader.
held. Infested . He must be so ashamed. How did my kid get infested? Some unclean kid has infested my boy. And then I remembered where I had heard that word before.
She wore a dark blue uniform, black shoes, black stockings, the plainest glasses, a turned-down mouth under a turned-up nose, bunned mouse-colored hair and one of the most serious and lifeless faces I ever encountered. Her name was Miss Jones. She was 45 with a high-pitched voice that boomed out from her corseted body. I was afraid of her, as we all were. She was the visiting nurse to our parochial school.
Annually, one of the girls got what we then called "bugs." Either the cooties were sexist, or I have a sexist memory because I recall only girls getting "bugs." But I do recall being examined by Miss Jones.
When a "case" was discovered in the class, Miss Jones was called. She would examine every head in the room. By some inexplicable logic, the sisters thought her stature as nurse, the R.N. pinned on her starched uniform, gave Miss Jones a special eye for lice.
One by one, we would march to the front of the room, humbly bow our heads to Miss Jones' penetrating search. The class faked silent reading, nervously waiting their turn. She would lift our locks, feel our scalp, turn our heads with her cold hands while we, shamefaced and fear-ridden, would await the verdict. If she found the cooties, she would make a slight head bow to sister, who would rush the lousy kid into the corridor and call the parent immediately.
One time, Pat Gariepo, beautiful and clean third-grade classmate, was caught with the cooties. She burst into tears at the head-bow verdict and ran to her desk. I was moved to compassion. As she gathered her things, I whispered, "They are only bugs." She misunderstood my reaching out and sobbed louder.
In those days having bugs was akin to leprosy. Bugs meant you were dirty, that your family did not bathe, stunk and probably never changed the sheets. Cleanliness was next to Godliness. Bugginess was next to diabolical possession. Your entire family was indicted. Brothers and sisters were immediately examined, and regardless of findings were sent home for precaution. iThis policy prompted many a mother to defend the uninfested siblings, emphasizing that dry scalp is not infestation; a flake is not a nit.
Miss Jones in my memory, my 5-year-old, infestedly humiliated in the school sick room; my other son probably being inspected that very moment. . .
But they're clean, real clean. We have clean kids. They're pretty clean. At least in the winter they are cleaner than in hot weather. We have clean sheets. What will I do? Maybe I should bring a couple of clean sheets to show them.
Call the doctor. Call in the prescription shampoo. Run to the car. Race to the school. Prepare a defense for Miss Jones, the nurse, whomever. rAnd this above all, get ready to comfort my shamed son. Rush into the office.
"He's in there."
I enter the sick room, expecting Rory to run into my arms in tears.
His back is to me. I see his good friend with him and one other first grader, a pretty girl. I think they are crying. Or talking? His friend sees me first.
"Hey, Rory and me's got head lice."
I look at Rory.
He is grinning.
"Hey, Dad, I got bugs. No school this afternoon."
And he laughs. Shamelessly.