Sunday, 29 April 2012

Headlice ain’t nice

I love The New Adventures of Old Christine, probably because when it first aired in South Africa, in the mid-2000s, I was also a single mother, about Christine’s age (we never find out precisely how old she is, as she’s terminally vane about it, but we can assume from various references that she was born in the mid-1960s, and so was I), and with kids around the same age as her son, Ritchie (pre-teen).

Christine and I do have several stand-out differences (her ex-husband, Richard, is supportive to an almost ridiculous degree, for instance, and mine isn’t; and I like to think I’m not as fabulously self-obsessed as she is) but we also have many similiarities (we both love our wine, hate dating and have a dysfunctional family of origin).

A recent episode, though, really struck gold with me – it was one about an outbreak of headlice at her son Ritchie’s posh private school. Christine, who stands out like a sore thumb among the other parents at the school because she’s a single mom, and also because she’s nowhere near as wealthy as them, is immediately targeted as Patient Zero.

In a ‘truth is sometimes stranger than fiction’ kind of way, this very same thing happened to me and my kids back when they were attending a very posh private school in Cape Town. I could barely afford the fees and often had to ask for more time to pay them (and then do complicated things with my revolving bond in order to free up funds); I was the only single parent in either of my kids’ classes; we lived in the little hippie suburb of Observatory in a very small house, while most of my kids’ peers inhabited mansions in Bishopscourt and Constantia; and while my children’s classmates arrived at school in chauffeur-driven limousines with TVs in the back (I’m not exaggerating), we walked – this was considered such a phenomenon that we were actually known as ‘The Walking Family’.

Now, as any parent of schoolgoing kids knows, headlice outbreaks are fairly common, and targeting Patient Zero is usually impossible. Headlice spread very quickly between children, and the only way to control an outbreak is to make sure that every child affected is taken out of school and properly treated – including washing with a pesticide shampoo and manually removing nits (eggs) – before being allowed to return, otherwise the cycle just starts all over again. (Back when I was a schoolkid, headlice outbreaks were so common that hats were banned; and affected children had to be examined by the school nurse and issued with a clearance certificate before being allowed back to school.)

In the case of my kids at the posh private Cape Town school, it quickly became clear that the outbreaks weren’t being properly managed: no sooner had I picked the last nit from my kids’ heads (a laborious procedure involving a bright light, a fine-tooth comb and the patience of Job) and hot-washed the last piece of linen in the house, than they came back from school with more. It was unbelievably frustrating, and I couldn’t understand why my repeated appeals to their teachers to make sure that every child was treated were constantly received with sideways looks and embarrassed shoulder-shrugs.

And then, a few days later, I did. I got a letter from the principal of the school stating that my two children had been identified as the ‘Patient Zeroes’, and ordering me in very frosty tones to make sure that they were lice-free before sending them back to school.

I was incensed. Not only had my children both been completely lice-free several times, and then been reinfected at the school, but there was absolutely no way that, in a school of about 500 kids ranging from grades 0 to 12 (and there were headlice outbreaks in almost every class), they could possibly have been correctly identified as the carriers of the plague. It was sheer snobbery at work.

I did prove my point, in the end. During the midyear three-week school break, I took my kids away on holiday. Before we left, I made sure they were lice-free; and when we came back, I checked again. On the first day of school, I phoned the principal and invited her to check my kids’ heads herself, to confirm that they were entirely without creepy-crawly infestations. She did, and they were.

Within a week, my kids were reinfected once again. Although I wrote a letter to the principal pointing out (in matching frosty tones) that this proved once and for all that my children couldn’t possibly have been the ‘Patient Zeroes’, I never heard another word from her on the subject.

Wealth and privilege might buy status, but it sure doesn’t buy good manners.




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1 comment:

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