Why We Played Cooties

When I was a kid we played Cooties. By that time, kids had already been playing this game for decades, ever since the 1918 Pandemic.

“Cooties!” we’d yell as we tagged someone on the playground.

And all the rest of recess that person tried to infect the rest of us. But sometimes we’d have mercy on our friends.

Clicking a ball-point pen on their arms, we’d chant, “Circle, circle, dot, dot, now you’ve got your cooties’ shot.”

We were, after all, the first of the Round-Scar Generation, sporting dime-size scars from small-pox vaccinations on our upper left arms. And we had grown up with the fear of small pox and polio and whooping cough, which meant you couldn’t catch your breath.

Cootie GameBut my favorite Cooties game came from a box. With this dice-rolling table-top game, we tried to be the first to build a cootie—on purpose and piece by piece. Our cooties, when built, had heads, antennas, eyes, mouths, and six legs each.

Cooties from WordKids played the earliest version of cooties during the 1918 Pandemic when perhaps a third of the world’s population was infected and children were particularly vulnerable. They played later versions during the last smallpox outbreak in the United States in the late 1940s. And like me, they played it in the 1950s when the polio epidemic put their cousins onto crutches and into iron lungs that kept them breathing.

Kids have always played out their fears. This is why I stabbed my dolls with needles before getting vaccines and why I played No Bears Are Out Tonight, an evening running game that pushed me into the dreaded dark. And this is how the cooties games helped me explore fears of infection that lurked in my mind.

During this coronavirus shutdown, my eight grandchildren have been on my mind. And I’ve decided to send them a new version of Cooties. And in true coronavirus form, I’ll order a set for myself so we can play it together via Zoom.



A Coronavirus Kind of Spring Break

“Guess what Grandma,” my oldest grandson said on a Zoom visit last night. “I’m stuck at home with the coronavirus, so I’m reading your book.”

Joel and I had thought we’d be together this week, that he’d come to Ohio from Illinois to spend spring break with me.

But instead of talking as we rode the bike path or grilled hamburgers or played ping pong, we met virtually.

“What’s really cool,” Joel said, “is that I was just learning about your time in my modern American history class.”

His teacher, Joel told me, had covered Sputnik and the polio vaccines and the Cuban Missile Crisis and Civil Rights. And just when school closed for the pandemic, they were talking about the Vietnam War.

“That was a bad time, Grandma,” Joel said, “a really bad time. And you lived in it.”

And, he continued with the hint of a snicker in his voice, “You lived during Flower Power, with the hippies.”

Joel wants to go back to school. Mr. Kauffman just talks to us, he said. He makes history alive and interesting. I want to hear more.

In my book 𝘠𝘰𝘥𝘦𝘳 𝘚𝘤𝘩𝘰𝘰𝘭, Joel is at page 70, just ready to read about the afternoon my teacher Mr. Deaton dumped a stack of Orwell’s book 1984 on top of his cluttered desk. I still remember that afternoon—how Mr. Deaton raked his long hair out of his eyes and perched on the edge of his desk. He sat there in his leisure suit with bell bottom pants and no tie, regarding us for a moment like he was trying to decide what to say.

Mr. Deaton was, after all, about to introduce us to a new and troubling world, a dystopian novel that warns about what happens when times turn bad.

“What I like about reading your book,” Joel said, “is that it puts history into a story. I like to know what you were thinking and feeling.”

And what I like about Joel reading my book, is that, perhaps in some way, I can give him company for his journey.

I’m disappointed that Joel and I didn’t spend spring break eating dinner together every evening. But in a new dystopian kind of a way, we are spending spring break together.


My Ninety-One-Year-Old Mom Takes on Coronavirus

Want to know how to quarantine? Take lessons from my ninety-one-year-old mom.

“Don’t worry,” she told me through the glass of her screen door. “I know how to do this. When I was a child, the health department posted a quarantine sign on our front door.”

So I’ve been dropping groceries on her front porch. And she’s been leaving them there in the cold for four hours to kill my germs and the germs of everyone at the store.

“Guess what I’m doing,” she said when I called the other day.

I never would have guessed. She was ironing a letter she had written. She wanted to sanitize it before she sent it.

“That’s what my mom always did when we were quarantined,” she explained.

In those pre-antibiotic days, my grandma knew all the tricks. If her family had been exposed to the measles or whooping cough or mumps, or, even worse, scarlet fever, she kept them home from church and school for three weeks. When people were sick, she boiled their dishes after they ate. She didn’t worry about running out of tissues. Instead, she used old sheets to make hankies and washed and ironed them between uses. And when she took her babies out in public she had at the ready a clean diaper to drop over their faces if someone coughed.

My grandma had reason to be careful. She had, after all, lived through the 1918 Flu Pandemic that infected perhaps a third of the world’s population. She had seen the graves of six children—all from one family—who had died in a diphtheria epidemic. And when her cousin’s three-year-old daughter died from scarlet fever complications, she couldn’t go to the service in the graveyard. These stories from my grandma became part of my mom’s diligence against germs.

“How did you know who was in quarantine?” I asked my mom.

And her answer was instant.

“Rubbernecking,” she said. “We all had party lines. So if we heard someone had scarlet fever, we called people on other party lines. And the word just spread.”

As the coronavirus swept toward Ohio, I expected to explain quarantining to my mom. Instead, I got myself an education.

Kitchen-Table School

Because of the coronavirus quarantine, my grandchildren and their parents are now together—working from home. And this takes me way back to my childhood, to the kitchen table in Flint, Michigan. There we all gathered to study after supper, even my mom. She was working on her high school diploma. Like most people in her church, which distrusted too much education, she had stopped going to school a few days after she started seventh grade. Her dad had walked into her classroom and handed the teacher a farm deferment.

“It seems a shame to take a child from school when she wants to stay,” her teacher had said.

But my mom had followed her father home to work on the farm.

But by the time we moved to Flint, the church had relaxed its rules, and my mom wanted a high school diploma. So with seven kids to feed and clothe and bring up in the fear of the Lord, she went back to school. Semester after semester, enrolled in the adult program of the Flint Public Schools, she completed classes one by one. And in the evenings, she did her homework right along with us.

There in the kitchen, it mattered that I found a powerful sentence to open my speech for Mrs. Brunett’s class. After all, Mom, just across the table from me, sitting between my two brothers, also searched for a sentence for the paper she was writing. My mom, I could tell, had a goal in mind. And she was working toward it.

You’d never seen seven prouder kids than on the night our Mom graduated from Flint Public Schools. We dressed up and sat in a straight row with our dad during the ceremony. Afterward, we presented Mom with a cake Dad made and decorated, and her eyes shone.

Since that time, a half century has passed, and a few weeks ago I never imagined my grandchildren would be doing school around their own kitchen tables. But while they are there, I hope they look across the table. I hope they catch diligence as they hear keys clicking under their parents’ hands. I hope they watch as their parents push through problems toward their goals and then try a little harder at their own schoolwork.

I’m sure that long-ago time around the kitchen table in Flint seemed more idyllic to me than it did to my mom. And I’m quite certain that a tableful of grandchildren seems more fanciful from a distance than it does up close. Still, a grandma can dream . . .

Enter Quietly; Patient Sleeping

Last week, I sat in my dad’s hospital room. I watched as the IV dripped pain medication and the crease lines on his forehead eased. I saw his eyes droop. I dimmed the lights and his breathing deepen. And finally he slept. But a moment later, the door flew open, the lights switched on, and a cheery voice asked if any visitors wanted a cookie.

“None for you!” she said to my dad who peered out from under heavy eyelids. “You’re on a special diet.”

So we tried for sleep again—pulling the widow shade, straightening the sheets, and adjusting the pillow.

But the interruptions kept coming—the phlebotomist after blood, housekeeping to empty the trash, beeping from the IV pole, a volunteer with a therapy dog, the intern with questions my dad had already answered five times. And when the nutritionist came in to see if we had any questions, I couldn’t help myself. I shushed her, like a bossy mom.

Through all these interruptions, though, I knew my dad was in a good hospital. The people who drew blood from my dad and fed him and took his blood pressure and made decisions about his surgery and gave him pain relief were experts. I’m glad my dad was so checked-on—and with such efficiency and professionalism.

And I had to admit, that from that bedside perspective, I recognized myself.

Way too often, I had been the expert bursting through the door of my classroom ready to ply the tools of my trade on students, as if they were objects. I had seen them as a means to fulfill my professional goals as a teacher—to raise test scores, for example, or to boost attendance rates. Too many times, I was so aware of a diagnostic measure I was about to dispense that I forgot to notice drooping eyes.

I’m glad my dad’s hospital had therapy dogs and cookies and people to draw blood. But I also I wish they had a sign to hang on a closed door: Enter Quietly; Patient Sleeping.


It’s How You Say It

If an average person says 7000 words in a day, how many words does a teacher say?  I just know I’d come home on Friday evenings not wanting to say one more word . . . to anyone. But for how much I talked, I often used only a small part of my vocal range. That is, until I sat in the back of Mr. Love’s class. He didn’t have a teacher-type voice—one that talked at kids, not with them. He didn’t alternate between sharp-edged voice and a sugary one. He used his voice to connect kids with content. So when Mr. Love spoke, students listened. Here are some tips from Mr. Love I’ll pass along to you:

  • Pause—Just before an important concept, Mr. Love would pause. “Listen to this,” he’d say. “Get this.” Then he’d wait. And silence would hang in the room. He seemed to know exactly how long to hold the stillness, and at just the right second, he’d make his point. Sometimes he’d pause just after he made a point. And in that silence, I could almost hear the thinking.
  • Emote—Mr. Love used his words as baskets to carry feeling. He’d make his voice big and then he’d make it intimate. He’d tone his voice up and down, filling it with awe and then practically whispering to show intrigue or mystery.
  • Alter rhythm and tempo—Mr. Love varied his voice as he change approaches or ideas. He showed degrees of importance by how he spoke. Were his words part of an aside? A continuing narrative? A focal point? Students could tell. They could hear the emphasis.

When I sat in the back of Mr. Love’s class, he had already taught over a decade. And that day, he had already taught for five periods. But his voice wasn’t plodding through a lesson. His voice showed he had something to say and he enjoyed saying it. Mr. Love’s voice presented the content, but it also presented a theatrical side of him. And this drew students into his words.


The Think, not the Ink

Some people said James Thurber’s cartoons in the New Yorker looked like they had been scribbled on the back of a napkin. Others said their kids could draw better than Thurber.

And when parents sent their children’s drawings to prove this, Thurber would write back, “Your son can certainly draw as well as I can. The only trouble is he hasn’t been through as much.”

Thurber, Dog and BugThoughtful reflection on tough experience, this is what was behind Thurber’s simple lines. It wasn’t how well Thurber drew a dog, for example, it was the way the bloodhound decides not to bother a bug. Wisdom, Thurber shows with this rough-drawn dog, is knowing when it doesn’t matter, when it’s best to let someone go their own way.

Veteran New Yorker cartoon editor Bob Mankoff says of Thurber’s cartoons: It’s the think, not the ink.

As a teacher, I’ve found it easy to be preoccupied with the “ink” of my profession—with the strategies I use. I pay more attention to how well I draw than to why I am drawing it, or even if I should draw it. Educational theorist Dylan William suggests that educators are like magpies, amassing so many shiny ideas from the latest workshops and books that teaching turns into a complicated tangle.

Good teachers know that all these “deliverables” need to serve the end goal—that students learn. The “ink—the stuff you bring to the classroom—without the “think” is ineffectual. Students are not machines, and following scripts is not teaching.

Good teachers think. They decide when to toss the latest strategy, the best-laid lesson plan. They choose when to ignore the next discipline level and give a hug instead. They know when to ask a question and when to give an answer. And then they reflect on what just happened. Why did that work? Why didn’t it work? And what have I learned?

These reflections guide their future practices, making their teaching strong, spare, and clear.

And like James Thurber, good teachers can make it all look deceptively simple.