The moment I’ve been dreading since I became a teacher in a kindergarten has finally arrived.
There are nits among us.
I was sitting at a computer in the office yesterday, struggling as usual with the Korean menus as I tried to alter a worksheet and print it out, when a homeroom teacher burst in, propelling a small girl in front of her. I didn’t pay much attention at first, the task of resizing a page in Korean requiring a lot of concentration and annoyed tuts. It was only when I finally hit print and sat back that I realised that the director and the homeroom teacher were bent over the child, deep in serious conversation, pointing at various parts of her head. I stared curiously at them, and then my eyes met the girl’s as she stood there patiently, her head bent at an awkward angle as the adults searched through her hair. She looked half-bored, half-afraid, so I stuck my tongue out at her and played a silent game of who-can-pull-the-silliest-face until I happened to glance up again.
It was at this point that I saw, to my horror, lice being picked from the child’s scalp and squashed between fingernails. Nits? I mouthed to Jennifer, and she nodded despairingly. The pair of them continued their discussion, followed by a series of instructions to the child. I couldn’t understand much of what they said, but the jist of it seemed to be that she was to avoid touching heads with anyone, and tell her mum to get some special shampoo to get rid of the lice.
And that, I can guarantee, is that. I just know instinctively that headlice will be a taboo topic in Korea. When I was at school and someone got headlice, the parents dutifully reported it to the school, and all children recieved a letter to take home, asking parents to check for lice and giving advice on how to get rid of them. We watched videos and had talks from health visitors about how to prevent headlice, and it was just as normal as having a talk about the importance of brushing your teeth and not eating sweets.
Brush and comb your hair each day to break their legs – for if you break their legs, they can’t lay eggs.
I could tell you several useful facts about headlice off the top of my head, so frankly was the subject discussed during my primary school days. I suppose some people may have felt a sense of shame or a need to keep it a secret, but in general we all knew that it was just one of those things, and it didn’t mean the nit-carriers were dirty. No one was embarrassed to say they’d had nits – indeed, we were encouraged not to be, with great emphasis being put on “they only like clean hair” so that we wouldn’t feel too ashamed to speak up if we thought we might have them, and wouldn’t bully other children who had them.
In Korea, though, I’m almost certain that there will be a different attitude. The teachers won’t alert the parents of the outbreak – probably not even the parents of the child concerned. That would be impolite and embarrassing for all concerned. It will be the responsibility of a five-year-old girl to report the lice to her parents, and she most likely has no idea that these things crawling through her hair are harmless and common. There will be no letters sent home urging parents to inspect scalps, no warnings to the other pupils and members of staff. I daresay I wouldn’t even have found out about it had I not been sitting there when the lice-squashing began.
Yep, forget the fine-toothed combs… let’s just pretend it’s not happening! Of course, I’m now sitting here going mad with the head itch as you always do when someone mentions lice. No doubt there are long nights of nit-picking in store – and not the fun kind. Even if I don’t have them now, how long can you avoid it when you work with small children who fling themselves on you for cuddles when you least expect it? Much as I can try to limit head-to-head contact, it’s impossible to avoid it altogether – and I can’t start pushing little’uns away when all they want is to sit on my knee or hang around my neck for a cuddle.
Mind you, I’m definitely going to feel a little more jumpy about it, wondering which unexpected hug will be the one to send a wandering crawler in my direction…