Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Nitpicking and the revenge of the lice pariahs

Look, I know I don't have Aids.
            I can’t possibly have Aids, because this year I’ve had more Aids tests than I’ve even been out to a nightclub.
            So I don’t have any HIV antibodies present in my blood, and thus I also have an insurance policy, a flat and a medical aid.
            But I have been socially stigmatised because of my condition by an uncaring, ill-informed public, when I could have been a productive member of society.
            It was lice, and it was in Standard 3 or so.
            There was one teacher who apparently had the gift of being a lice-diviner; and she was installed in the hall to inspect the entire seven grades. English and Afrikaans and both special classes.
            If ever a gift can turn out to be a burden, that teacher must have felt that this was such an occasion.
            I remember feeling some empathy for her, as I dutifully queued up for my turn and watched her shriveling up her nose in stoic disgust as she plunged her fingers into the hair of smelly Gregory, the boy who collected moles.
            She rummaged around for a while, intently picking through his thatch like someone who doesn’t eat olives going through their Greek salad, before eventually pronouncing him lice- and nit-free.
            That Gregory passed – in fact the only thing I remember him passing – gave me confidence. When all three of the Kimbreys, who kept monkeys, managed to earn the teacher’s grudging approval, I thought I was home free. But no. I was among only three boys in the entire school with lice.
            If girls get lice, I’ve yet to see it.
            “But I’m from a good family,” I protested tearfully. “And I never play with the cat.”
            It was to no avail
            “Lice is no respecter of social status,” the teacher told me gravely. “No one is immune.”
            I think it was probably the time we crawled from Alsace Road to Bordeaux Avenue via the stormwater drains that gave us lice. Or the time we built the underground fort in the bush at the bottom of the road.
            Either way, there were three of us who were eventually left standing like lice pariahs at the side of the hall by the time the inspection was over.
            We were sent home that very afternoon with a letter excusing us from school for the next week and outlining the course of treatment that our parents should follow to allow us to be readmitted.
            This included a powerful alcohol-based spray-on treatment that apparently worked by exfoliating all the skin on your scalp and causing patch baldness.
            But before that, once the shame had faded, our little group of outcasts undertook a small cranial inspection of our own. Nitpicking, I think it’s called.
            From what we could tell, lice were tiny black dots, while nits were the little white ones. It wasn’t the end of the world, we decided, we still had our self-respect and even if we were temporarily cast out into the wilderness, at least we still had each other.
            As luck would have it, we all played tennis.
            So, for the next week we contested what came to be known as the Lice Bowl, a marathon series of American singles challenges, where two played one, in each possible permutation.
            The Lice Bowl was contested on the school tennis courts during school hours, when all the other kids were in class and there was no chance of us infecting the populace. It was a masterstroke, and I recommend it to all recovering lice sufferers.
            The only complaint came from the art teacher who had the classroom by the tennis courts.
            “You can’t play tennis during school hours,” she bellowed.
            Now comfortable in our role as outcasts, we bellowed back in a remarkable show of gall, “Get away from us! We’ve got lice!”
            She did actually recoil a bit, and went to find the headmaster, who confirmed that, yes, those were indeed the lice boys.
            By the end of the week we were putting salt and pepper in our hair, to approximate the appearance of parasites, and got the Monday and Tuesday off as well.
            The next year, all three of us made the first tennis team.