"She's got them," says the teaching assistant, taking her hands from my daughter's head. My heart sinks.

"What?" I ask, knowing the answer.

"The L word," she replies with a funny grin on her face. Lice. I am not amused. This is our second go-around. Now both children are infested.

As I walk them down the hall, my stomach turns to knots. My stress level elevates. Before we even get in the car to go home, I am exhausted from anticipating the chores that lie ahead. With my head suddenly itching unbearably, I mobilize my troops for what will be hours of pure hell. "Let's get your backpacks, girls, we've got a lot to do," I say.

Where I come from, no one ever had lice. Rightly or wrongly, lice was a badge of filth, of shame. It happened to other people, people who didn't keep clean, people we didn't know. For my daughters to have lice is an embarrassment, a disgrace so terrible that I cannot tell a soul.

I literally drag the girls from store to store in search of a particular lice treatment that worked the last time. I drive to stores where we are not known. When I finally track down the product I want, it is behind the counter. I muster the courage to ask the pharmacist for the lice shampoo, feeling like a teenager asking for condoms. Heads turn. Eyebrows raise. Hushed murmurs are heard. I cannot bear the fact that now even these strangers know.

On the way home, there is no small talk in our car. We are silently preparing for the treatment. For the next 10 minutes, the girls sit shirtless, draped in old towels. Their hair is doused in an ice-cold, medicinal liquid the color of iodine and smelling more like tar. It mysteriously begins to wreak chemical warfare on the community of lice. "Don't get it in your eyes," I bark at the girls, who are beginning to feel they did something wrong. I am not my usual pleasant, reasonable self.

"Ding," the timer indicates the next phase. "Rinse your hair well, get all the soap out, towel it dry, get dressed fast and meet me on the back porch."

I am not having a good time. Both of my daughters have thick, long hair. The long, arduous hunt for nits is about to start. Head lice, not to be confused with body lice or pubic lice (also known as "crabs"), are tiny insects that feed on blood and lay their nits on hair shafts. Nits are tiny, white cigar-shaped eggs. The adult louse glues each egg to an individual strand of hair. The eggs live up to 10 days, but need the body heat of a host to hatch -- usually in a week. Lice reach adulthood and sexual reproductive capacity in three to four weeks. Throughout this growth cycle, the adults creep around and bite the scalp, causing excruciating itching.

All the brochures claim that treatment is simple. But for my family, nit-hunting is an aggravating, time-consuming and somewhat painful process. "Mom, my neck hurts," my daughter moans, trying to hold her head still so I can find the nits. I have no sympathy. My neck, shoulders and arms ache and we have only just begun. Her beautiful long hair is fine in texture, so the nit combs do not work. Strand by strand, I search, and with my fingernails slide each nit off the hair shaft. I carefully place each nit into a bag. Close to two hours later, I have only finished one head. I am ready to give each girl a zip.

Then daughter number two sits in the chair. She's totally uncooperative, not caring nor understanding this process and why her otherwise normal mother is acting somewhat insane. She cries; I yell. Coming to my senses, I briefly calm down long enough to bribe her into sitting still. But after a while, she fidgets, flipping her carefully nit-picked hair onto the un-nit-picked hair. Suddenly I understand the meaning of "to nit-pick," and vow to drop the verb from my vocabulary.

Next, it's laundry time. We strip all the beds. I wash the linens in scalding water just in case some Mother Louse is hiding out. I am exhausted. I throw the pillows into a hot dryer for 20 minutes, per instructions. I give them more heat to scorch the little vermin. Then, I vacuum all the mattresses, the furniture, the rugs. Finally, I gather the dolls and throw pillows from my prepubescent daughters' beds, and drag them down to the dryer for a turn in the heat.

Then we clean all the hairbrushes in the house and dump them into a tub of scalding water and a dab of anti-lice liquid. Last but not least, I run off loads and loads of clothing laundry, not willing to take a chance that even one louse still lives in my house.

In the meantime, tempers flare. Tears stream down faces. Everyone is hungry, but who has time to cook. On this memorable day, nothing has been accomplished except a major lice blitzkrieg. And my head itches like crazy. I can't bring myself to sit down or lean against anything for fear of infestation.

The phone rings. "Tell her I'll call her back," I protest. I cannot talk to anyone right now. "What's new?" I imagine my friend asking. "Oh, nothing," I reply. "The entire family is infested with lice, but you're coming for dinner tomorrow. Right?"

For the next several weeks, I can't bring myself to talk about this with my friends. Every day I check everyone's head, mine included. As the days pass, I take a perverse sort of pride in the fact that there are fewer and fewer nits to find in my daughters' hair. By the same token, I am shocked to find the ones I have overlooked.

Slowly, I come out of my isolation. I reluctantly allow my daughters to invite other children to our house. I feel conspiratorial, advising them not to mention the lice episode to their friends or to their friends' parents. I covertly do a once-over of each guest's hair, especially around the ears. I warn my children not to, under any circumstances, share brushes, barrettes, ponytail holders, baseball hats with anyone, and not to lean against the pillows in the reading corner of their classroom. I have them repeat these instructions back to me. They look at me as if I have finally blown a fuse.

Then one day, I phone a woman in my book club. In the course of checking calendars for the next meeting, she lets it slip. "I'm so tired," she admits. Pause. She lowers her voice, as though others might hear: "Both of my boys have head lice."

I shriek with joy -- a compatriot. She understands. I am not alone. We compare notes: the embarrassment, the shame, the secrecy, the exhaustion, the work, the nonstop imaginary itching. We take comfort that neither boys nor girls are immune, and that public school and private school alike are breeding grounds. We tell each other that it is so hard to believe that our children were infested with lice. We repeat the fact that lice is not a sign of being dirty. Nonetheless, she validates how clean I keep my house and children. I validate it for her as well. Almost immediately, we feel better. We vow to form Lice Anonymous to support others who are facing this horrible problem and direct rage at those who are cavalier about removing and destroying the nits.

And so, I end my tale of woe with hope, knowing that throughout the year -- spring, summer, fall and winter -- the lice community is on the move, settling here and there like transient gypsies. When they visit your family or school or camp, it won't be a fun time. But it's okay. Together we can overcome the stigma.

My name is Shelley M. and my children have had lice.

On the Head of the Classsksw

Now that summer camp is over, the letters soon will be coming home from schools across the country: Dear Parent,

Recently a case of head lice was discovered on a child in our school. Not enough to be alarmed about, but enough to be concerned about. Once discovered, it should be treated fast since it spreads quickly.

Sincerely,

The Principal.

School-aged children are particularly susceptible to getting lice, because of the constant and close contact with one another. In spite of the popular misconception, head lice (also known as "cooties") are not a sign of filth or poor hygiene. While head lice do not hop or jump, they are passed around rather easily, either directly from person to person or through contact with contaminated brushes, bedding and clothing.

In schools where coats are hung on top of each other, where reading corners are piled high with plump pillows, and where dress-up clothes are shared by all, head lice can have a field day. Some schools, plagued by chronic lice epidemics, have enforced a strict "No Nit" policy. Every few weeks, volunteer "Nit Patrols" of concerned parents descend unannounced on the school and check the head of every student. Any child found harboring even a single nit is sent home.

"Lice epidemics used to be seasonal," explains Rockville-based pediatrician Hari Sachs. "Now we can have them all year round." The first sign of head lice is constant and intense itching. Skin irritation or infection may occur as a result of repeated scratching. In rare cases, lymph glands in the neck or under the arms may swell.

The good news is that the commonly prescribed lice treatment, NIX, is now available over the counter. "Read the directions carefully," advises Sachs. "Do not exceed the recommended dosage. This is a case of 'more is not better.' If absorbed, the active ingredient Permithdrine could be toxic. We tell parents to carefully wash out the shampoo, and not to use it on children under the age of 2 without a doctor's supervision." Another commonly prescribed product called Quell contains the powerful chemical lindane, which has been known to cause seizures in children.