By Paddy Mulan
Miss Flood stood wooden-faced, at the front of the class.
She was a formidable figure, heavy without being fat, with dyed
brown hair swept up and back, Maggie Thatcher style. Beside her
and dressed in a white coat, an equally large Nurse Dunne was
pulling on a pair of surgical gloves. She was about to begin her
six-monthly inspection, examining teeth, probing into ears and
parting hair to look at our scalps.
Miss Flood clapped her hands for attention. ‘Boys! Boys!’ she shouted, in her drill sergeant’s
voice. Her eyes sparkled with anxiety behind her glasses as she stared at the
rows of desks.
‘ We will start the inspection from the back,’ she said. The boys seated in the back row
were the lepers, of the class. The boys, who, according to Miss Flood, didn’t pay attention,
didn’t do their homework properly, were late for school and generally were boys
that, in her opinion, were not worthy of her time.
First up was Bosco O’Hara, a country boy with a crow’s nest of red hair and a red face
to match. Miss Flood looked at him distastefully as he passed her. Nurse Dunne peered
into his mouth and ears, and then poked around in his hair. Engrossed by the whole
spectacle, I sat on the edge of my seat for it was my turn next.
Nurse Dunne grunted her satisfaction and told him to sit down again. Miss Flood’s
mouth curled downwards in disappointment that nothing had been found wrong with
‘Next!’ she barked. I passed a smirking Bosco in the aisle between the desks on my
way up to the front of the class. Nurse Dunne pulled my lips apart like a horse trader at
Ballinasloe fair and inspected my teeth. She twisted my ears, yanking my head to the
one side to peer into my ear cavities. She then went through my hair with all the enthusiasm
of a beachcomber that had just found something of interest washed up on the
shore. She grunted, and I took this as an indication to sit down again.
The inspection dragged on in almost complete silence, broken only by the occasional
cough and the scratching of Nurse Dunne’s pen as she wrote on her clipboard. Boy
after boy went up to the waiting nurse and was inspected by her as if she were a white
slave trader at an auction. We sat in our seats and Miss Flood her arms folded under her
DPW Journal Vol. 1, No. 1 April 2005
plateau of a bosom, glared down at us, daring us to misbehave.
Finally, Nurse Dunne was ready to inspect the last boy, Colin James, who sat in the
desk immediately in front Miss Gillen’s table and who was her favourite pupil. Miss Flood
smiled her encouragement at Colin.
A pink-faced, well-scrubbed boy, Colin was as squeaky clean as a new balloon. During
the morning or afternoon milk break, if Miss Flood had an extra chocolate biscuit, she
would smile and offer it to him. Colin in turn, would sometimes offer her an apple or
would walk up to her desk, his sandals making polite, squishy noises on the floor, and
offer her a sandwich. They were delicate little sandwiches, cut into triangles with the
crusts cut off.
Colin, in polished sandals and turned down white ankle socks, now stood obediently in
front of Nurse Dunne and bent his well-groomed head with its shiny, black hair for her
inspection. She began flicking through his hair like a bank teller counting notes and all
of a sudden froze. She put her thumb and forefinger together, tweezers-like, and lifted
something from Colin’s scalp. She studied it briefly and a triumphant gleam came into
her eyes. Her cheeks lifted slightly. It was as near to a smile as I ever saw Nurse Dunne
manage. She stretched out a podgy arm towards Miss Flood, displaying her find like a
Miss Flood’s mouth hung open for a fraction of a second. ‘Take it away! Take it away!’
she screamed, her face deathly pale and she jumped backwards with all the agility of a
Nurse Dunne flicked whatever it was into the fire and we heard the faint sizzle of something
burning. A buzz of excitement erupted from the class and boys half stood in their
desks to get a better view. She resumed her inspection of Colin’s head, this time peering
more closely at his scalp. She again put her thumb and forefinger together and lifted
something from his head. Miss Flood stood with her back to the wall, her face twisted in
fear and one hand held protectively at her throat. Nurse Dunne dropped whatever she
had in her fingers and it scurried across the teacher’s desk. With the speed of a gunfighter,
she lifted a ruler and brought it down on the desk with a loud splat.
Hunter Moore, who also sat in the front row and had a bird’s eye view of the whole
episode, turned and excitedly informed the rest of the class in a loud whisper that it was
a wee grey thing with hundreds of feet. Colin stood in front of the class, tears of shame
brimming in his eyes and his pink knees knocking together like castanets. Nurse Dunne
and Miss Flood held a whispered consultation during which we clearly heard the words,
infestation and personal hygiene.
Nurse Dunne put her files in a briefcase and snapped it shut. ‘I’ll be back on Monday,’
she warned. Miss Flood nodded glumly and I knew that we were in for it when the nurse
Miss Flood stretched out her arms wide and grasping her table on either side, inched
it backwards, further isolating herself from the front row. She left just enough room for
her to squeeze into her seat. Her face turned an ugly red and she stared at Colin with a
mixture of sympathy and revulsion.
‘Never in my born days have I been so ashamed of anything,’ she hissed. ‘And poor
Colin of all people,’ she said, her voice now breaking. She pulled a hankie from her
sleeve and gave her nose a genteel blow.
‘Miss! Miss!’ piped up Bosco. ‘What were they Miss?’
She glared accusingly at the back of the class. Her voice rose. ‘Nothing but dirt and
filth,’ she screamed. Struggling to keep her voice calm, she said, ‘I want every single
one of you to come in here on Monday morning with your hair cut up short.’ She held up
her hand, forefinger and thumb about half an inch apart. ‘That short,’ she ordered. ‘And
you,’ she shrieked at the unfortunate Colin, ‘stop your sniffling.’
She instructed us to read our books while she stared vacantly out of the window, past
the geraniums on the windowsill to the hills beyond. She gave the occasional shudder
and sighed repeatedly.
During the afternoon break she stayed in her seat and Colin, in a desperate act of reconciliation,
left his desk and offered her one of his sandwiches.
‘Get back to your desk,’ she barked.
The sandwich dangled limply from Colin’s hand and he started sniffling again.
Later, when I told my mother about the days events at school, she looked alarmed and
‘Those things spread like wildfire,’ she said and sent me to the chemist shop to buy a
She made me kneel down on the floor in front of her and spread a clean pillowcase
across her knees.
‘Put your head on my knees,’ she commanded and then began scraping my head with
the steel comb. It made a noise inside my head like the sound my mother’s knife makes
when she peels a turnip for the Saturday stew. She dug the comb into my scalp and
dragged it from the back of my head to the front. Fearful, I looked up, expecting to see
DPW Journal Vol. 1, No. 1 April 2005
blood dripping from the comb’s teeth and staining the white pillowcase.
‘Miss Flood is a very proud woman,’ my mother said suddenly. I clutched at this opportunity
to get my mother talking, anything to get away from the purgatory I was enduring
with her scraping the head off me.
‘How’s that?’ I asked, my voice muffled as I spoke into the pillowcase.
‘She was always the same, even as a small girl.’ My mother spoke softly as she began
reminiscing about her childhood. ‘Always thought she was a bit better than the rest of
us. Very clean and immaculately turned out for school every day.’ She sighed and resumed
combing my head, a lot gentler this time. ‘And her hair, it was her crowning glory.
All the other girls admired it. It was thick and brown and as shiny as a newly-shelled
chestnut.’ I grunted into my mother’s knees.
‘Of course every weekend her father gave her a bottle of beer to rinse her hair with.
Mister Flood said it would strengthen and thicken it. And he would know, for he was an
educated man. When I asked my father for some beer he just laughed and said it was
a terrible waste of drink.’ She resumed her attack on my head with renewed vigour, as
if it was my fault that her father didn’t give her beer to strengthen her hair. I squealed in
‘All done,’ she eventually said. My scalp tingled and I looked at the pillowcase. My
mother saw my look. ‘Nothing there,’ she said. She gave me an affectionate pat on the
head and smiled. ‘You’re as clean as a whistle.’
When my father came in from work he went out to the back shed and got his hand clippers,
the ones that he trims his Kerry Blues with. He sat me on a chair in the backyard
and began shearing my hair. My mother tut-tutted as she watched my fair hair falling to
‘It’s terrible looking,’ she said sadly. ‘You’ll look like someone just out of jail in your
On Monday morning, we gathered in the playground before school. Miss Flood looked
pleased with herself as she lined us up, and we shuffled after her, like miniature members
of a chain gang, into the classroom. ‘My, my,’ she beamed, ‘aren’t we the smart
looking bunch of lads. Nurse Dunne will certainly find nothing wrong with us today.’
Unable to keep quiet, I blurted, ‘My mother said that we’ll look like a bunch of convicts
in our Confirmation photos.’
‘Nonsense,’ she said, ‘sure it’s not for another six weeks yet.’ She turned her back on
us and began writing on the blackboard.
From my seat at the back of the classroom, I stared at the rows of semi-bald heads.
They were all shapes and sizes with the hair shorn. I nudged Bosco with my knee and
we started sniggering. Miss Flood whirled around from the blackboard, her eyes flashing
‘What’s so funny?’ she snapped.
Bosco and I bit into the backs of our hands in a vain attempt to stop giggling.
‘Up here,’ she ordered and reached for her cane. A strand of hair had fallen down over
her forehead and she angrily swept it back into place. Her mouth suddenly opened wide
and she started sucking in air like a drowning man that had popped up for the third time.
She dropped the cane and started shaking her hand in a wild frenzy. She stared down
at her table and began making funny little whimpering noises.
Colin, looking pinker than ever, jumped up from his desk. ‘It’s alright Miss Flood. I’ll kill
it, I’ll kill it,’ he bleated. He clenched his hand into a mini fist and brought it down with
a thump on the table. He smiled in triumph. ‘It’s alright now Miss. There’s no need to
worry,’ he shouted gleefully. ‘It’s dead.’
But of course it wasn’t all right, for by then, the formidable Miss Flood was out in the
playground, screeching her head off.