Insidious Beasts

You sit in somebody’s living room and try not to stare. Try not to let your eyes scan the room like a streak of light, or if you do, hope to make your face flat and quiet, as if what the lenses capture is without impact. A carefully watered plant holds the same weight as a ragged shoe or yesterday’s remains from the dog nobody let out. Truancy isn’t about the house.

Still, it’s hard to hold the eyes of someone who won’t make eye contact, and when their eyes lead yours, it’s almost impossible not to dance. Whatever the condition of the home, you can bet there will be apologies offered, as if a child’s pattern of absences is exposed in shameful household deficits. Truancy is about patterns, which the environment eagerly reveals.

I’m in a home that reeks of yesterday’s urine and this morning’s feces, last night’s dinner, yesterday’s dirty clothes. I’m demonstrating to the family how to comb nits from the hair of a child who can’t ever remember not having them, whose entire school career—four years—is punctuated not with spelling tests or classroom parties, but absences due to blood-sucking parasites.

I don’t think it was lice the secretary saw, the mother tells me. I think it was a flea.“Well,” I say, “they don’t want fleas at school either.”

I separate a thin strand of hair with the tail of a comb, then pull the segment of hair taut between the child’s head and my fingers. Sun filters through hazy windows as I point out how live nits glisten like crystals. Semantics won’t help the child’s head, but they may save the parent’s pride.I’m not against them saving face during the interminable process of nit-picking. Medical experts will tell you head lice is not about cleanliness, but experience will remind you that it is about attention to detail. This home clearly needs more of both.

* * *

I knock at the door of a well-manicured home in a new subdivision. The mother invites me in, serves iced water in a sparkling glass as we sit in the family room on soft leather chairs. Everything is clean and in its place. The student I’m about to meet has become expert at excluding herself from school and the parents are frustrated with their lack of control.

“Where is she?” I ask. The mother’s chin lifts toward the stairs, as if she is so tired of the battle she cannot even raise a flag to defeat. She leads me up to the girl’s room and opens the door. The room is dark with tidy curtains. A shaft of light slips around one edge of the fabric, catching the silver gleam of the television, the stereo, the cell phone charging in its cradle. Sterling necklaces dangle on corner of a mirror. Earrings glint on the dresser top.

“How you doing?” I ask.

The teenage girl in the bed remains with her back to me, facing the wall. Blankets cover all but a tuft of black hair on her head.

“Mind if I sit down?” I ask, not waiting for her answer before I plant myself on the corner of the queen-size bed. Her mother withdraws from the room, leaving the door ajar. For half-a-second I conjure how sitting alone in a truant student’s bedroom would appear to an outsider. Or to my boss who doesn’t understand most of what I do, but likes the way reduced number of absences stack on a page.

“So you have cramps?” I say.

She grunts acknowledgement and shifts a little under the lump of covers but doesn’t make any attempt to engage.

“Take anything?”

I can’t, she says. It’ll make me puke.

“Oh…” I say. “So you can snort coke and drink beer, but you can’t take Ibuprofen?”

Her head snaps out of the blankets to size me up, then she rolls onto her back. I can see half her face now.

That’s right, she says.

“Big problem.” I tell her. “Because you’re going to have periods for another thirty years, so we gotta make a plan.” She rolls her eyes and glances at the cell phone on her nightstand. Examines her fingernails in the half light. She closes her eyes and then opens them to check if I’m still there. I am.

“You like Starbucks or Dutch Brothers’ coffee?” I ask.

“Never had Dutch Brothers.”

“Well,” I say, “You better get up, so we can take a trial run because tomorrow morning I’m going to be here at 7:15, cramps or no cramps, and I need to know which coffee to bring because we won’t have time to stop for another if I get it wrong.”

She rolls on her side to face me, propped on one elbow. Smiles. Asks if I really think she’s going to go out looking like this, waving her hand at her face and hair.

“Dutch Brothers is drive through,” I say. “So you’ve got five minutes to do your face and fix your hair. Everything from here up,” and I gesture from my shoulders skyward.

I turn and leave. Hear her rustling around in her room before I’ve even touched the bottom stair.

Is she going to school today? her mother asks.

“We’re just taking a trial run,” I tell her. She’ll be back in half an hour. But tomorrow, she’s going to school.”

Missed school days are insidious beasts. They creep up one moment at a time: one lesson, one class, one day passed without the benefit of school. It doesn’t matter whether the sparkle that keeps a child home is due to the reproductive habits of parasitic pests, the allure of a computer screen’s alternative world, or the call of friends on the silver cell, the damage is the same: missed days equal missed education.

Some children who have too many treasures miss school as often as children who have too few.

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