Have I bragged about how good our last Strangerville live show was? I have? Well, one of the reasons it was so great was because of Whitney Call, who closed out the night with one of the most beautifully-written stories I have read in years.
Check out the recording of her story on today's Strangerville; I would also strongly recommend that you read it below. This is a story worth experiencing both ways.
This time in Strangerville, Meg’s dog needs a therapist. And Whitney Call reminds us how hard it is to be 9 years old.
StoryLice Check, by Whitney Call
Production by Eli McCann & Preg Walter
I had two very different childhoods, both of which probably screwed me up, but also made me the woman I am today.
One childhood was spent in the dingy part of Hillsboro, Oregon. My parents scrounged up all their savings to buy their very first home--a home that was across the street from two rival gangs that instigated drive-by shootings every month. Robbers regularly broke into the home on the corner because the elderly people who lived there made their yard look beautiful. A stray dog once jumped into our yard where I was playing and my Chow Chow got in a straight up dog fight with him.
But, as I say all this, I need to stress that it wasn’t all bad. In fact, most of it was really lovely: janky rec centers, janky ice cream trucks, janky tree houses that could only fit two small people on them. Every memory of Hillsboro has a faint soundtrack of Helen Reddy songs playing underneath it. That was the vibe: happy, sappy, random as eff.
School was a different matter.
“Title One” sounds too nice for what my school was. We once ended the school year a month and a half early because there wasn’t enough funding left to pay all the teachers through June. Someone burned down part of our playground one summer--the slides were made of plastic, so it wasn’t a pile of ashes so much as a piece of taffy pulled thin and curling. But the worst part about my school was that everyone--everyone--in that school had lice.
By the time I entered the third grade, I’d had more lice outbreaks than birthdays.
I can still smell the stringent stench of Rid shampoo burning my scalp. I can feel the cold of the countertop against my cheek as I fell asleep to the rhythmic pinch and pull of my mother’s hands tugging lice and nits down every strand of hair, before she crushed them in her fingers and left their remnants in the sink. I went to school without a coat, and hung my backpack on my chair instead of the communal coat rack. I threw away all my stuffed animals, including a five foot stuffed Meeko racoon that, to this day, is the coolest thing I’ve ever owned. And every time I got clean, inevitably, I’d go back to school and get lice all over again.
Maybe it was the lice.
Maybe it was the drive-by’s.
Maybe it was the constant visits from Anna Schmies and her daughter Janelle, who’d sent me to the ER with a dislocated arm.
But my mom had had enough of Hillsboro, Oregon. And so my second childhood began the summer before I entered 4th grade--we moved to a suburb about fifteen minutes outside of Portland called Rock Creek. It’s as quaint as it sounds. There was a park with a tennis court behind our house. All the streets had pretty names like Quail Hollow, Ponderosa, Millicomo. Our elementary school’s mascot was the Pioneers, and the PTA was well-stocked.
All the girls had been friends since preschool and each group basically had one name like, “Marylaurenenhannah,” or “Desienandi,” or “Kayla” . . . because there were four girls all named Kayla.
The kids’ lunches were homemade, with sliced carrots, hummus, and sandwiches in the shape of smiles. Some kids even brought coffee in little thermoses, making our cafeteria feel like a beautiful cafe. My parents got our food from the Grocery Outlet. Yes, there is literally an outlet store for groceries that are defective or have passed their expiration date. I never saw it that way, though. At the GO, we could buy anything! Little Debbies, Shasta pop, gum in the shape of cigarettes! There was a rainbow in the sign! It was a magical place. Until Kayla Staggs asked what on earth was in my lunch, shaking her salad together in her little salad box.
I’d never felt poor until my parents had made enough money to move us to this better place.
One day at school, we were in the computer lab and then, out of nowhere--it’s always out of nowhere, isn’t it?--two women walked in wearing gloves and holding a bag of popsicle sticks.
It was the first time I’d been checked for lice since moving from Hillsboro--a place I missed terribly, but somehow, knew that I should reference to my new friends with disdain. The transition had been fast: in Hillsboro, I was carefree. In Rock Creek, I avoided Liz Reigler every time I wore my Paul Frank shirt because my mom bought it from a yard sale next to her house.
I thought about asking to go to the bathroom and hiding out until the lice check was over, but I just stayed glued to my seat. I looked around--nobody else seemed terrified like I was. Dusty Raines was trying to look at my boobs--because I was a nine year old with boobs--but other than that, everyone sat lazily looking at their screens as these women combed through their hair, determining the future of their social lives.
I tried to act natural. I tried to slump down and let my eyes glaze over at my screen. But I couldn’t stop worrying. Could everyone see the sweat on my back? Could they hear my heart pounding, and see my shoulders shaking with each thump?
Without moving my head, I watched Mrs. Reed make her way down the aisle two rows from me.
Everybody was clear.
Then she came to the next row. Didn’t even pause. She could’ve been playing Duck, Duck, Goose on everyone’s heads for all I knew.
Then it was my row. When I felt her checking the girl next to me, my fingers were already sliding across the keyboard, I was sweating so badly. My head had never felt so itchy, but I bit my tongue hard to keep from scratching. DON’T let on that you might be defective.
Then it was my turn. The touch of the popsicle stick against my scalp made me shiver, and I dug my toes into the floor to keep my legs from shaking.
Kayla Staggs mentioned that she loved getting lice checks because it felt like a massage. She clearly had never had lice.
She’d probably never heard a drive-by shooting outside her house. Never bitten into a moldy apple from the Grocery Outlet. Never got a bottle of shampoo for Christmas as her parents hyped it up, saying, “Santa knew you needed shampoo! . . . now share it with your sisters.”
Well, everything seemed business as usual. And then Mrs. Reed’s hands froze above me. I held my breath. She bent down closer to my head. She turned to Mrs. Parsons and whispered, “Come look at this.” Of course, everyone spun around in their seats to look at me.
A lump formed in my throat. I stammered, “I-I have dandruff.”
I looked at the kids all around me, almost pleading. “I have dandruff.” They all looked away. Mrs. Parsons came over to have a look, and said in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “Oh, they’re just everywhere.”
Can I just vent for a little bit? Why would she do that? I mean, what the heck, Jane? Do you get a rush when you strip a child of all the confidence they’ve mustered in their short little lives? “Mm! Snuffed out the light in her eyes and I’m feelin’ a buzz!” I dated her son two years later and he made his sister call me and tell me he met someone else and wanted us to break up, but still wanted me to be his online girlfriend! Great parenting job there, Parsons! Spittin’ real winners out into the world! And just so you know, this short hair I have now isn’t because of your little lice-capades! I happen to like having short hair now, and I FEEL LIKE A WHITE RIHANNA!
Well, Mrs. Reed and Mrs. Parsons didn’t pull me out of class right there, because that wasn’t bad enough. Instead, they left. And 10 minutes later, my name was announced over the intercom to come to the front office.
So the whole school knew I had lice.
The most annoying part of it is that I didn’t even really have lice. It was dead lice. Carcasses wasting away on my head. I mean, it’s still gross, but not as socially gross. They were remnants from my former life, and I wanted to discard them along with the rest of who I was.
I’ve been lice free for 20 years, now.
Feels good to say that. I wish I could say that I just told everyone, “Screw you” and stopped caring what they thought after that, but I did care. Very much.
I overplucked my eyebrows, I’d go full days where I ate only an apple, and, worst of all, I stopped singing Helen Reddy songs out loud. I probably would have had the same struggles growing up in Hillsboro, but I wonder how much time I wasted trying to take back everything about me that I had no control over. I’d never felt so small until I grew up.
I love to tell these stories because it makes something big out of the small. Big in a good way. A worthwhile way. See, at this point in my life, I’ve taken all those agonizing moments and tried to make them into something worth experiencing. Maybe that’s what being a grown woman means. We go through ups and downs until we recognize that those downs are a part of us--they hold value.
Sometimes, when I close my eyes while praying or dreaming or slowing down a moment, I actually feel bigger than the universe, towering over the world and everything in it. So, if I could go back in time to 9 year-old Whitney when she waited in the office for her mom to pick her up, feeling so poor, so alone, so small, I would say to her,
“Oh, I’ve heard it all beforeAnd I've been down there on the floorNo one's ever going to keep me down again
Whoa, yes, I am wiseBut it's wisdom born of painYes, I've paid the priceBut look how much I gained
If I have to I can do anythingI am strong (strong)I am invincible (invincible)I am woman”
~It Just Gets Stranger