Lice made a haunting contribution to my vocational development and my decision to become a teacher. I was in the Appalachian Mountains of western Maryland completing a field experience in a three-room schoolhouse. Two teachers taught the first through fourth grades and the principal taught the fifth and sixth grade students. There were no secretaries, aides, or special teachers; the school had no art room, computers, cafeteria, or gymnasium. The school was unrefined and I loved it. But more so, I loved Will. Will, a brown eyed first-grader, wore scuffed shoes that were too large and consequently slid up and down on his feet. His heels were chafed and red because he did not own a pair of socks. He did, however, have an impressive case of lice.
Before the lice came into my life, I do not remember listening for a calling, nor straining to hear where or how I should serve. The lice didn’t change the direction of my path but the encounter profoundly transformed the reason I stayed on the path. Here’s the story of how God used lice to get my attention and keep me on the road to becoming a teacher.
I was in charge of the listening station in the first and second grade classroom. The night before I set up the reel to reel tape-recorder and expressively read one of my favorite stories, The Three Billy Goats Gruff. Cleverly I had added sound effects with whatever tools were available in my dormitory room. The teacher had entrusted me with choosing children to come to the station and use the headphones to hear the story and do an activity with me. Will was the first name I called. Quickly, the teacher was at my side, panic in her eyes.
“You can’t pick Will. He lives way back in the woods and his lice will infect everyone else who uses the headphones. Ignore him today and choose others to join you,” she whispered firmly.
But Will was smiling at me as he proudly headed to the kidney-shaped table where I was waiting. In that moment, all the questions I had suppressed for years flooded my consciousness: Who was I? Was I a deferent twenty-year old, fearful and frozen? Could I make a difference in this very moment for this child? Did it matter? And if it did matter, why did it matter? Like Palmer (2000) I lacked insight “into my own limits and potential” (p. 22)
I knew nothing about lice. I wish I had known that head lice “rarely (if ever) cause direct harm, and they are not known to transmit infectious agents from person-to-person. Thus, they should not be considered as a medical or a public health problem” (Pollack, Kiszewski, & Speilman, 2000).
But it was 1972, and I was merely an unsophisticated college junior. Who was I to make a stand for Will? Amidst all these voices clamoring in my head, one crystal clear thought pierced through the din: the taped story, regardless of its elegance and sound effects, was not why I wanted to teach. I wanted a relationship with each and every Will.
Sadly, the teacher was unconvinced by my arguments to allow Will to join me. In the ensuing years, I tried to block out what happened next. The teacher told Will to return to his seat. He didn’t get to hear the story I had prepared that day. But much worse, he was an outcast: uninvited, uncalled. Like Palmer, “I was disappointed in myself for not being tough enough . . . disappointed and ashamed” (2000, p. 22). At the end of the day, safe in my car, I cried the whole way down the mountain. That night, I poured all of my angst into a letter to my uncle, a Baltimore city school teacher. Within a few days, I received his wise words. He gently told me that the Wills of the world are why I need to stay focused and teach, not just from my mind and heart, but from my soul. To see children through my soul’s eyes would be the work God called me to do. Inside the envelope, my dear Uncle Chester tucked a five dollar bill and suggested I treat Will to a milkshake.
I adore my work and am passionate about literacy and literature. Teaching gives me energy. But more so, I am on the lookout for “Wills”. My Messiah College students do not have pervasive lice (thankfully!), but many students who come to sit in my office are weighed down with issues or problems that keep them from living their lives fully and joyfully. I spend a lot of time listening to students, sometimes over coffee, tea, and yes, occasionally over milkshakes too. Although Will never got to hear the story that I had prepared for him, he prepared me to hear others’ stories, to listen, to serve. Now . . . it’s what I do. It is who I am. I don’t know if I am good at it, but the students keep coming to sit in my office, so perhaps it is going well.
I don’t remember the genesis of this prayer, but when I found it few years ago, I decided to carry these good words with me:
Lord, take me where You want me to go; Let me meet who You want me to meet; Tell me what You want me to say and keep me out of Your way. Amen.