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On the surface, my family's recent encounter with head lice seems to have very little to do with the home-based education of our son. Yet, being in this environment, where hands-on experiences very often become the teacher, allowed us the unique opportunity to turn this 48-hour traumatic event into a science lesson worthy of writing about. The names in this story have been changed to protect our friendship with the characters, all of whom we love.

It was 8 PM on a Sunday night. We had just arrived home from dinner at the Japanese restaurant. The number "2" was blinking on the answering machine. I pushed the message button and quietly listened to the message. " Hi, this is Sheila," the first message began. "Sorry, I have bad news for you. Peter has head lice. Since he played with Billy last Friday, I think that you should check his hair for any lice or nits. We have already used a medicated shampoo called "Clear," which Charlie picked up in the drug store. I spoke to Gloria, who confirmed that her son Percy also has a case of head lice. Call me if you have any questions."

The second message was from Gloria. "Hi", said another familiar voice, "I guess you've already heard from Sheila. Percy also has head lice. I bought a product called "1-2-3," used it on him, and then watched the lice jumping off his hair. Call me if you have any questions."

Questions? For starters, what, how, when, where, why? In more than twenty-five years of being a parent of school-aged children, in both public and private schools, through many notes sent home warning about the latest outbreak of head lice, I have never personally experienced tiny critter attacks on any one of my four darlings. I was cautiously confident. I naively believed that because Billy was now taught at home and washed his hair often, there was no way that lice could gain a claw-hold. And although outbreaks of head lice were more common in group settings such as in the public school or in summer camps, I knew that they could come from any contact with an infected person. The possibility that my little boy could possibly have head lice loomed like some dark shadow in the night.

I heard my wife slowly ascending the stairs. She yelled, "who are the messages from?" "Sheila and Gloria" I replied. "What did they want? " she innocently asked, as she entered the bedroom. I shuddered! I thought, woe is me! Don't get me wrong. I love my wife very much. She is an amazing, beautiful, talented, spiritual, centered and strong woman. In the past 12 years, we have faced, head on, many challenges and dramatic life events, through which our love has not only survived, but also deepened, flourished and grown. Yet, there have been moments when all signs of her rational thinking have gone out the window. Especially when it comes to any level of insect infestation, she never hides her extreme repulsive reaction. Whether it is an ant on the counter or a spider on the wall, all out-war is declared and I become the foot soldier, the executioner, if you will. No prisoners, no survivors. But, I had an ominous feeling that this potential battle against head lice could turn out to be the worst of all, perhaps even spiraling into a nuclear holocaust. I could already picture that "yucky bug" face and the ensuing change in her body language. I thought for a moment. Maybe I could just erase the message, pray with all my heart and soul that neither he, nor we, nor her mother had head lice, and hope that she never spoke to either of her two friends again. But, I just had a feeling that this set of circumstances would not occur and I answered, "Percy and Peter have head lice."

Her response was surprisingly reserved. After screaming, "YUUUUCK!!!," she began to do what she does best: Create a multi-level plan of attack on those filthy little buggers. For a moment, I found myself feeling sorry for the lice. They picked a fight with the wrong woman. It's like Osama Bin Laden picking a fight with the USA. They don't know it or believe it, but they are going to get their asses whipped. Rather calmly she said, "We are going to go to sleep now. Dennis, you get on the computer in the morning and comb the Internet for anti-lice information." I slid into the bed, and answered, "Yes dear." At that moment, I knew that I was in for it, that it was going to be a difficult night to sleep, I was probably going to count lice instead of sheep, and that tomorrow was going to be a very interesting day indeed.

Day 1-Search and Destroy

I was up at 6 AM and on the Internet by 7. I went to a site called There, The National Pediculosis Association presents information about the cause and treatment of head lice, interspersed with graphic thumbnail photographs of the louse in various stages. One click enlarged them to creepy reality. From the nit (egg) to the nymph (newborn) to full-grown parasites with human blood in their abdomen, the louse's 16-day lifecycle is revealed in living color. Thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I received a quick education in locating and identifying nits and lice, treating them with medicated pesticide shampoos, and engaging in an intense and thorough search and destroy mission.

Most importantly, the reasons for avoidance of certain treatment, behavior and chemicals, such as Lindane, were explained. Sections with titles like " When is a Nit Not a Nit," "Lousology 101," "Lice and Nits, Hold the Mayo" (apparently Mayonaise, Vaseline, oil and other concoctions are sometimes used by desperate parents, "Houses Don't Get Lice, People Do," and my personal favorite, "Don't Let Your Child Become an Egghead," made interesting, informative and horrifying reading. By 8:15 AM, I was ready to wake up my wife, give her the twenty pages of printed material, present the tips of the four-pronged approach, (Screening, Detection, Removal, and Prevention), and begin the crusade.

Sitting down with a cup of coffee in her hand, she listened intently and impatiently to the plethora of information that I had gathered. We both got on the phone, talked to many people including, Sheila, Gloria, the physician's office, the teacher at our son's learning center and some parents who also educate their children in the home environment. "It's one of the reasons that I don't send my children to the public schools," one friend said to me. "In 12 years I have never seen a case of head lice except that which comes from the public schools," Billy's teacher said in an ominous tone.

She referred us to Cynthia, a woman who she said "has fought the good fight and has become an expert due to her experience." By the time we were finished with the head lice discussions, I understood where the expressions "nit-picking" and going through something with a "fine tooth-comb" came from, and why Cynthia told us to rent a movie while on the hair lice search and destroy mission.

Using a small magnifying glass and a flashlight, I checked my wife's hair and scalp for any unusual material. I saw nothing. Then, my wife searched me, and we both searched our son. Samples of suspicious white matter were removed. Billy and I took those samples, placed them on a slide and placed the slide on the table of a recently purchased microscope. We compared those particles, first to the printed copy of the photographs and then to blown-up thumbnails on the computer at Billy and I determined that we were indeed observing nits and hatching nymphs and reluctantly reported the findings to my wife.

War was declared! The battle plans were drawn. The surprisingly "measured responses" were announced by "General Blitzkrieg." "We will not spray the house with pesticides," she said in a heavy, ominous accent. I am relieved. "However, we will vacuum everything in the house within a square inch of its life, including all rugs, floors, chairs, couches, pillows, beds and stuffed animals. We will wash all used linens, towels, and throw rugs. We will wash all clothing and hats worn within the last week. We will wash and vacuum the inside of both cars. Finally, we will all wash our hair with the physician-recommended pesticide shampoo called "Nix." Then, we will search our hair with a bright light, a magnifying lens and a fine-tooth comb, and we will pick nits and lice until every one is removed or dead. Anything that cannot be vacuumed, shampooed or picked will be placed in a plastic bag for 16 days. Then we do it all again at my mom's house. Any Questions? None? Okay then, let's go!"

Over the next 24 hours we vacuumed, vacuumed, vacuumed, cleaned, cleaned, cleaned, washed, washed, washed, shampooed, shampooed, shampooed, picked, picked picked, and then placed anything else in plastic Ziploc bags. We probably did 30 loads of hot water laundry. I know that we washed some items two or even three times, either because we used the articles or we made a mistake and just threw them back into the dirty clothes area. We later read that twenty minutes in the hot dryer was all that was necessary to kill the creatures. Too late to save time and water in this go-round, but good information to remember for the future.

At 9 PM, one at a time, we took showers, shampooed, towel dried our hair and drenched our hair with "Nix," which was left on for ten minutes and thoroughly rinsed out. Each of us sat down at the foot of the bed under the ceiling light while the other two began the head lice search. This was a process that may be accurately described and compared to "searching for a needle in a haystack." I imagined the lice scurrying and hiding in shadows like prisoners trying to elude the searchlight of the prison guards. For more than three hours, we used our fingers to spread the hair into sections, observed each hair shaft and the immediate scalp area with a magnifying lens, combed through the hair with a fine-tooth comb and picked out any white or brown material approximating the size of a sesame seed or smaller. It was possible that the gook was dandruff or DEC plugs or hair casts, and each had to be microscopically identified before a diagnosis could be made.

Unfortunately, the samples we placed on the slides showed all the stages of the louse life cycle. A piece taken from Billy's hair showed the most dramatic revelation. There, in living color, lay one live louse with moving claws, jaws, tentacles and an abdomen filled with blood. My wife cringed with horror at Billy's graphic description of the creature and made him wear a sock hat to bed. The examination of my hair, due to its scarcity, was quickly done, and we were pretty sure very little living matter was present. However, the length and thickness of my wife's hair and the fact that I am farsighted made it a more tedious and difficult task. Even though I had found nothing resembling lice in her hair, she would not be satisfied until "someone who can see" checked her hair. At 1AM, the three of us, physically and emotionally exhausted from the ordeal, and thankful that the first day of this drama was over, went to sleep.

Day 2-This is the End

In the morning, we did another thorough search and destroy mission and microscopic examination. Ten more loads of laundry were done, all the furniture in the living room was covered with sheets, and I cleaned and vacuumed both of our cars. At 11AM, my wife, our son, her mother and I went to the elementary school so that the school nurse could check us. She recommended and demonstrated the Robicomb, which is the most modern tool of live lice destruction. Nicknamed the "lice electric chair," this battery-operated electronic head lice detector, zapper and fine toothcomb, showed that Abby, her mom and I were free and clear, and except for two zaps, so was Justin.

The nurse answered all of our questions including ones about the relationship between human head lice and beards, pubic hair, cats and dogs. No, due to different hair textures, head lice usually don't live in your beard or pubic hair. No, lice don't have back legs and can't jump. Yes, there is a small chance that human head lice could crawl to a dog and then to your hair. No, they can't live on the animal. Yes, you could vacuum the dog. And I thought, vacuum the dog? No way! Even my wife is not that extreme. But sure enough, when we got home that's exactly what we did. The look on our poodle's face when we started to vacuum her curly, black coat made us laugh so hard that the tension that had filled our home for the last 48 hours was dispelled, and by the next morning, except for Robicomb and visual checks, and a good vacuuming of my mother-in law's house, the ordeal was essentially over.

As parents of a child who were new to home-based education, it was good for us to think and teach "outside the box." Over the two days that we spent as a family uncovering and eliminating head lice, we were able to turn an unpleasant and potentially sour situation into an amazing educational experience. Independent thinking and a more practical hands-on approach to learning replaced staid, boring bookwork. We were able to combine the relatively new technology of the computer and the Internet with information taken from a microscope, a scientific instrument and teaching tool used for hundreds of years. My wife and I became immersed in the self-directed process, and our son learned about a subject far beyond second grade curriculum. This resulted in an exciting scholastic and unique life experience for us all. So this is what home-based education is all about.

Dennis Wayne Bressack
Woodstock, New York
December 2001