I got lice in second grade when I lived in suburban Maryland. The school administration claimed the outbreak, which hit a large percentage of the student body, resulted from an infestation in the tumbling mats. Since I had long hair, the delousing process took over a week: a hard core shampooing followed by intensive sessions of nitpicking. My experience left an enduring distaste for the nasty little critters and a vow to avoid them throughout the remainder of my life.
The second week we were in Chennai, lice hit RSO, the school we’re volunteering with. We returned on McKane’s birthday from a long day of attempted merrymaking with a birthday cake to share with all of the kids. We were shocked when we found that seven of the little girls had somehow lost their hair over the course of the day. They were bald. My gut response was, “Oh no, lice,” a diagnosis confirmed by the school director, Gopi. “I found over 1,000 of the lice on these girls. Tomorrow I shave them all–boys and girls.” We were shocked by the sight of hairless girls–it seemed such a drastic measure–but not by the prevalence of the bugs. The children sleep side by side on floor mats and what one gets, all get.
Once my initial concern for the newly shorn girls passed, I immediately started worrying about the security of my own scalp. I had been letting these same girls hug me, fawn over me, and play with my hair for the past week. I turned to Gopi. “I must have lice too. Does that mean you have to shave my head as well?” “No, no, no,” he assured me, but his response raised a curious point. If the dreaded cooties can be combated with shampoo and nit combs on me, why did the girls have to lose their raven locks? Fortunately, between our shock and the sage advice of a senior teacher at the other school (the one where we stay), Gopi was dissuaded from any further shaving and embarked on a shock and awe attack against the lice.
Despite my concerns, my head was unaffected by the plague and I spent the next week mourning the loss of the little girls’ hair. I shared in their parents’ grief when they arrived for Family Day ready to adorn their daughters’ heads with flowers and found no hair to which to pin the flowers. I marveled at the girls’ resilience as they smiled and laughed, unwilling to let their new hairstyles interfere with their fun. We joked with Gopi about his victims, who we named the “Gopi 7,” but sympathized with the daunting task of managing the health and safety of 65 kids round the clock.
The day we left the girls had already grown enough new hair to cast a nice shadow on their cute heads. I called these four over to pose with their follicly-challenged Uncle, with whom they share a newfound bond.
When we arrived in Delhi the next morning, I wondered why Dax and I had gotten such bad dry scalp that we were frequently scratching. That night I called him under the lights to do a quick scan of his scalp. Sure enough, I found about 5 egg-laden lice wandering his head looking for the perfect shafts of hair on which to deposit their future offspring. I called McKane in as well, though he had not complained of any itching. One mega-louse, three baby lice, and about 100 eggs later I pronounced him clean…for the moment. I then assigned Tom the duty of searching my head. He found only one bug, but it was enough to confirm what he had suspected all along: if you have hair and sleep and cuddle and play with kids who have hair, whatever is on their heads ends up on yours.
Somehow Asher, Kieran, and Tom escaped the lice: Tom because he has no hair, and the little ones probably because they were too small to carry the kids or give them piggyback rides and never tucked them in at night. Now as we travel through Rajasthan (we’ll update you on that soon), we are using anti-lice shampoo, picking nits at night, scratching our scalps by day, and thanking our lucky stars that we had the chance to share three and 1/2 weeks with such beautiful little people, lice and all.