THERE IS A CHILD involved so we will not use names. We will say he lives somewhere in the Washington area and that he is 8, 9 or maybe 10 years old and that he is a handsome kid. He stands just under 5 feet and his eyes sparkle and his hair is cut shorter than it's ever been, but still long, reddish and infested with nits.
The boy comes over to the table where I am talking with his mother. He bends over and you can see them there - white, flaky sort of things that look a bit like a dandruff. They are the eggs of lice and they are dead but they are very hard to remove. You have to take each strand of hair and pull the nits to the top one at a times, and if you do not long enough you will understand how the expression nit-picking came into the language.
His mother sits at the dining room table and tells him about her problem. She has the boy come over so I can look at his scalp. They are both very nonchalant about it all. He is home from school again because of the nits. No other children in the house have the nits and none of the adults, and this is true even though they all use the same hair brushes and the children sleep in the same room. The house looks clean. Still, the boy is home from school. He has been home on and off ever since he brought home a note.
"There are these pink notes that come home with him," his mother said. "They say, "Dear Mrs. So and So, your child has been infested with lice.' Infested! That word - I hate it. Then it lists the whole procedure and says the child cannot come back until it is cleared up."
Maybe the time has come to say that this column is not really about lice or nits or anything like that. It is really about something else, how schools make parents feel guilty, but the way to get that across is to go about the lice and the boy. He is always being treated for his nits. His hair is doused in a solution and then 24 hours later the whole procedure is repeated and he has been to the doctor's and always the doctor pronounces the nits dead - a virtual certificate is issued. Still, the school knows only what it sees and what it sees are nits. The boy stays home.
The mother is middle-aged, college-educated, separated from her husband, and works during the day. The school knows all that. The mother has her ways and one of them is to be a vegetarian. The school knows that too, and so what the mother and the school do is spar. The school is always making her prove that she is, in fact, a good mother - as good a mother as mothers who don't work and aren't separated and eat red meat. The school, for instance, intimates that she does not keep a clean house.
"It's like they an answer for everything," she said. "It's always your fault. It's always your fault."
Now here's the thing. The person who told me about the mother is her friend and a writer and he thought there was something significant about her story - something worth commenting on. For a while, neither nor I knew what that was and it really wasn't until I met the mother that I knew. It was guilt. Lice are really the perfect guilt trip, for even though you know that your house is perfectly clean and that lice need not have anything to do with cleanliness or poverty or anything like that, still, it is up to you to prove that.
And the fact of the matter is that schools are masters at making parents feel guilty. They know that you know you are not the perfect parent and they play on that. They intimate that they know more about your child than you do and they suggest that they are the professionals and you are the amatuer and they, after all, at the very least deal with children all the time while you, for one, are at work with adults. They do this and they do one thing more that is unstated: The capitalize on the feeling of security they get from knowing what you don't know - how your child really acts in school.
This is the way it is. This is the way it is if you work and are not a full-time mother, and this is the way it is if you are a hard-working father with less than all the time in the world to spend with your child; and this is the way it is if there is anything about your life-style that is outside the old norm - the old mother-at-home norm, and even then the school will do its guilt number.
Anyway, it is always this way and lice are only the worst example. The nits, it turns out, are almost impossible to remove. The nits, it also turns out, are dead as a door nail. The nits, it has now been confirmed by more than one doctor, do not necessarily mean that lice are present any more but they are more than enough to put this mother on the defensive. Has she done enough? Is the house clean enough? What, after all, is enough and who among us does not know that there are places in our homes that might give the board of health a moment's pause? At one point, for instance, the school asked this mother to come in for a conference so everyone could sit down and figure out where in her home her son was being infected.
"They are succeeded in making me feel defensive," she said. "I find myself not wanting to go to meet them. I feel so defensive."
And that's exactly how they want her to feel.