Sophia Zhao

In today’s day and age, the least likely place to administer vaccine doses is perched on top of monkey bars or beside a swing set. But that’s where the real protective medicine got doled out toward the end of elementary school. This was a world before masks or face shields, before we knew about Pfizer and Moderna. This was a world where the most harrowing invisible threat was never deadly. To protect my friends, I’d start moving my index finger in circular motions on their forearms while we’d chant: 

Circle, circle, dot, dot. Now you have the cootie shot!

Before the Yague, there was the OG — opposite gender — plague. The annual shots you got at the pediatrician’s office and the dinosaur band-aid you wore as a consolation prize didn’t prevent cooties. Be careful, this playground epidemic could spread to anyone.

Consider a check-up if your symptoms include a racing heartbeat, sweaty palms, and a general feeling somewhere at the intersection of anticipation, repulsion, and curiosity. Outbreaks of the contagion occur when you’re in the vicinity of the opposite gender. If you physically come into contact with them in some way? If you hold their hand in gym class during the parachute unit, for instance? You’re screwed. If you don’t have the cootie shot, there’s no remedy for your ailment. 

Cooties embody quintessential preteen awkwardness. They’re a stand-in for the unknown variables that come with a girl talking to a boy, and vice versa. Very heteronormative, but I’ll be honest, this malady wasn’t always related to romance. The cooties excuse was useful when you didn’t want to be near the boy who got muddy during recess or the girl who wore too much of her mother’s perfume. 

Most generations get to grow up and grow out of cooties naturally. As the years pass and hormones begin to rage, fear of interacting with the opposite gender fades. Teenagehood marks an inauguration into dating culture where the only threats young adults have to avoid are STDs. 

But when the pandemic struck, a sizable portion of Generation Z never fully completed this important stage of social development. Tumbleweeds rolled across a barren and deserted adolescent playground. Sure, we’ve left plastic slides in the dust, and moved on to red Solo cup socialization. But the time we spent at home during remote learning left many of us missing that in-between. 

We weren’t given the space or time for casual exposure therapy to things like cooties. We had to stay six feet apart at all times. Social distancing became more than just a pure physical boundary. At precisely the time when we were supposed to realize cooties were nothing more than immature, self-imposed borders between genders, we lost access to that potential closeness. 

After recess became study hall, playdates didn’t evolve into date-dates. People our age spent less time loitering in mall food courts and shared less popcorn in dim movie theaters. We didn’t slow-dance at prom or sneak out for late-night rendezvous while we were trying to stop the spread. It was hard to make inconspicuous eye contact with our hallway crushes over Zoom.

Enter college. Just as restrictions began to ease and normalcy was on the horizon, teenagers got dropped onto college campuses — already places of accelerated social learning. With full vaccine cards and wide eyed excitement, Yale seemed like the place to confront this gender tension once and for all. And anyway, should 18 year olds really be worried about something as silly and abstract as cooties, independent or dependent of COVID? 

Yes. I’m concerned about what they represent. Teens lost crucial time that was meant to be spent developing immunity to cooties. Reintegrating into college level social dynamics was made even more difficult after prolonged periods of high school isolation. The first couple of parties I attended post-quarantine had awkwardness thick in the air. Conversation was stilted and tense, if present at all. It almost felt like people had forgotten how to interact with the opposite gender, and we’d reverted back to a time when arbitrary excuses like cooties thinly veiled our fears about growing up. 

Whether we like it or not, college is where we have to rediscover being social. And we can’t show interest like we used to. It’s no longer socially appropriate to chase someone through sprinklers or to tug on someone’s pigtails. So, how can we display attraction without fear of catching cooties? How can we adequately protect ourselves?

I’m no CDC official, but I’m certain no booster exists in addition to the original circle-circle-dot-dot shot. Without having the time and space to develop herd immunity against the opposite gender plague, I recommend we fearlessly face cooties here and now. It’s as good a time as any to build up our immune systems by engaging in new experiences with people of other genders. 

We’re old enough to not need protection from the realities of potential relationships, whether they be romantic, sexual, or purely platonic. As I see it, the grossness of cooties spreading on the playground has transformed into the exciting promise of forging new kinds of bonds on campus. If I get to experience everything I missed out on, I’m finally ready to risk catching cooties. You should be, too.

Eliza Josephson writes personal essays for the WKND desk as a staff reporter, ranging from contemplative memoir to light hearted satire. Originally from New York City, she is a sophomore in Pierson majoring in Comparative Literature.