There sure is an awful lot said and written about the poor economy and the lack of jobs and welfare and crime and many of those discussions include talk about the high birth rates to unwed women and the breakdown of the family. Why are there so many out of wedlock births today when compared with the forties, fifties and sixties? What has changed? Instead of throwing around the same old arguments I would like to present another possibility that has not received much coverage.
Could it be, and I’m just presenting this possibility as a student of those earlier decades, could it be that the percentage of unmarried women, in their childbearing years, who had a male partner was smaller then? I believe that it was and that the cause of the smaller percentage could have been a once common school yard affliction which affected one-sixth to one-fifth of the female population at that time. What was it, what was the scourge? Cooties.
Now don’t pretend that you never heard of cooties. At one time they were rampant on grade school playgrounds throughout the United States. Getting Karen Lester’s or Sandra Schmidt’s or Myra Winkle’s cooties meant that a fourth grade boy would have to spend the entire day brushing off his coat and making “eww” noises. Oh, sure, there were some attempts at prevention like the cootie shot which involved having a friend jab his finger in your arm but they never really worked. Once a girl had cooties she had cooties and any contact was to be avoided whether it was with Karen or Sandra or Myra or with the boys who recklessly threw girls’ cooties around the school yard.
I remember one afternoon our teacher came out onto the playground during recess and asked just what in the world was going on since when she looked out the window she saw two boys running in circles and jumping up and down like they were possessed and then pulling off their coats and beating them on the ground.
“Cooties, Mrs. Walker, Jimmy and Alan got Myra’s cooties.”
That was the end of that recess and then we were lectured to about being nice and being kind and polite and friendly and happy. Once we even had the principal come on the PA telling us to stop this cootie nonsense, there was no such thing as cooties and that she didn’t want to hear anything more about cooties. We all knew what that meant: Miss Wallace, our principal, had cooties.
Years later when I was in my early twenties my longtime girlfriend broke up with me and a friend called and said he wanted me to go out with him and his girlfriend for a couple of beers. Now I know that he had good intentions and was trying to help by getting me out but something happened that night that made things even worse. I was sitting there and they were telling me how I had to stop moping around and cheer up and all the other things people say when suddenly my friend stopped talking and stared at three young women who had just walked in.
“There you are”, he said. “Wow. Go over and talk to the one with the red hair, she’s gorgeous.”.
I turned and looked. She was tall and beautiful and she looked familiar and I knew who she was.
“I know her”, I said.
“You know her? Then what are you doing sitting here?”
“Her name is Linda Franz and she was in my fourth grade class and she had cooties.”
“Oh, I’m sorry”, he said. He looked down and then we talked about football the rest of the evening.
You don’t hear much about cooties anymore, I guess they finally found the cure (the telethon to fight cooties must have been on at the same time as Jerry Lewis because I never heard about it). If only the cure had been there for Linda.
Like I said, you don’t hear much about cooties anymore but you sure hear about what the elimination of that school yard plague may have meant to young women, the family and American society. I guess it’s called the law of unintended consequences.