One morning in first grade, the principal made an important announcement. “There is a severe head lice epidemic,” he grumbled through the loudspeaker. “The nurse will call classrooms in one at a time tomorrow to check for head lice.”
Kelly, the pig-tailed girl that hated my guts from the moment she saw me in kindergarten, turned and gave me an evil smile, “Maybe when they’re checking for lice, the nurse will also see that Stephanie has the COOOTIES!” she snarled.
The entire class laughed. The teacher shushed everyone to listen to the rest of the morning announcements.
I looked over at my friend, Alia, who glanced at me sympathetically. Alia and I knew each other from our special ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. Kelly frequently picked on Alia as well for wearing a religious head covering to school, so we bonded through the shared torment.
“Alia,” I whispered. “Do you tink I have dah cooties?”
She shrugged, “I heard Jimmy B. got dah cooties so dey sent him away.”
“Do you know vhat cooties are?” I asked.
“I dunno,” she replied. “But dey sound yucky!”
Samantha, a girl that claimed to know everything about a whole lot of nothing, couldn’t resist chiming in. “You have the cooties if you wear all the same clothes all time like Stephanie does.”
I looked down at my clothes. I just wore what my mom gave me; I didn’t know there was a problem.
Patrick, the kid that was always picked first during gym class, chimed in. “You have the cooties when you have ugly brown spots on your skin like THIS!” he said, as he pointed to a small mole on my face.
“Ew, you touched her, now YOU have the cooties!” yelled Kelly.
“Nu-uh!” Patrick protested. “Last summer, my doctor gave me the ‘Circle-Circle Dot-Dot Cootie Shot’. Now I can’t catch cooties, EVER!” He stuck his tongue out at her.
“QUIET DOWN CLASS!” the teacher ordered. The morning announcements still droned on. I looked down and nervously scribbled on a piece of paper with an orange colored pencil.
“Alia probably has the cooties, too. I can tell because you and Stephanie can’t say words right.”
“I think Kelly’s dah one with dah cooties,” Alia muttered under her breath.
I kept to myself for the rest of the day and tried not to cry. By the time Anyu came to pick me up from school, my face was flooded with tears.
“Everyone says I have the cooties and I don’t want to go away like Jimmy B*!” I blubbered. “I need a shot from the doctor!” I thrust a piece of paper into my mother’s hands. It’s a bit faded today, so here is the transcription of what I wrote:
Brown spots and if you wear the same clothes all the time. If you can not say words right. Patrick can’t get it he had dot shot in his arms.
This was a prescription for disaster. My mother launched into a complete panic attack.
“Oh, my GOD! Did you put your mouth on da vaterfountain?”
“Did you use somevon else’s’ sippycup?
“Did you shit down on dah toilet?”
“DON’T shit down on dah toilet, Stephie! You’ll catch DISEASE!”
I continued to bawl.
“I can’t handle it!” she screamed. She immediately called the school and hollered into the phone to anyone who would listen. “Do I need to take her to the Emergency Room? We don’t have insurance!”
The person on the other end of the line must have thought my mother was taking about the head lice epidemic, so they explained the lice checking procedure. As soon she hung up, she called Nagymama into the room, and sat me down underneath the hottest floor lamp on the planet. They hovered above me with a magnifying glass, pulling and poking at my head for what seemed like hours. If they even found so much as a piece of lint, they put it on a piece of paper at watched it for ten minutes at a time. Eventually, they gave up and Nagymama made me dinner. Instead of explaining The Truth about Cooties or even how to avoid head lice, she immediately called her sister to complain about how difficult it is to be a mother.
I went into school the next day and got my head checked – no lice, no cooties, nothing! Ironically, after the visit to the nurse, Patrick was immediately pulled out of class and was mysteriously absent from school for the next few days.
I guess his cootie shot didn’t work after all.
[*The truth is, Jimmy B’s parents got divorce, so he moved to Florida with his mom. He does not nor did he ever have the cooties.]
And while we are on the subject of cooties, here is a cute video I found: