“Nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah nyah” (Bully Anthem) by
(88 Stories)

Prompted By Bullying

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Remember playing Cootie? The goal was to be the first to build a bug-like object from a variety of plastic body parts. I spotted the familiar box on a dusty shelf in a second-hand store in Orange and, in a quick fix of nostalgia, bought it. Now it sits on a dusty shelf in a shed in my backyard.

A cootie is a body louse, but it’s also a children’s term for an imaginary germ or repellent quality transmitted by another child who is perceived as different.

A cootie is a body louse, but it’s also a children’s term for an imaginary germ or repellent quality transmitted by another child who is perceived as different.

Simma transfers into our sixth grade class in the middle of the school year. We instinctively know she is different from the rest of us. Her clothes are plain and out of style. I’m thin, but Simma is bony. My hair is a mass of defiant curls, hers is lank, matted. Almost routinely, one boy shoves another into her and snickers, “Nyah nyah nyah nyah nayah nyah, you caught Simma’s cooties!” I see her sad eyes, but I look away.

I’m in a clique…it’s Susie, Terry, Renee, Debbie and me. One day Debbie (who has a really cool older sister) tells us about Elvis Presley and the next we’re all crazy about him. Music is in the air, and it seeps into me. Never even kissed, I’m absorbing heartache and heartbreak. I learn that It’s Only Make Believe, that It’s All in the Game, and that All I Have to Do is Dream. I have a crush on Bobby B; his straight blond hair falls down over one blue eye, and his lip curls up on one side just like Elvis.

Finally, finally, it’s the last day of school before summer vacation, and my very last day of elementary school. No more paper drives, no more Maypoles, no more Halloween carnivals. The bell rings for recess, and I dash out of my classroom. I use the lavatory, then head outside. The stairs leading down to the playground have a fat, hollow-pipe handrail, and at the top is a small landing with the same metal pipe acting as a guardrail. Before taking a step down, I stand for a few moments on the landing, my hands on the rail, my senses oddly alert.

The playground below is filled with the sound and sight of noisy children and bouncing balls…there’s handball (which I’m pretty good at), dodge ball (which I’m really bad at and hate), foursquare (so-so), and tetherball (really good). There are monkey bars (good, with blisters to prove it) and hopscotch grids (just okay). At this moment, I am keenly aware of the warmth of the sun as it comes out from behind a passing cloud. I tilt my head up to it, eyes closed. The metal railing is hot under my hands and feels solid and good. I stand there enveloped in the warmth and feel very consciously alive for the first time ever. Something has changed. A knock-kneed girl with unruly hair illuminated in a shaft of bright sunlight, I am suddenly wide awake.

I spot Simma, in the shade, siting alone on a wooden bench. As if she senses someone looking at her, she glances up at me. I raise my hand in a shy wave, smile tentatively, then beckon for her to come up. She rises slowly and climbs the stairs. When she reaches the top, I take her hand and lead her into the lavatory where we stand in front of the mirror. I pull a comb from my brand new turquoise patent leather purse and she allows me to work it through her tangled hair.

Profile photo of Barbara Buckles Barbara Buckles
Artist, writer, storyteller, spy. Okay, not a spy…I was just going for the rhythm.

I call myself “an inveterate dabbler.” (And my husband calls me “an invertebrate babbler.”) I just love to create one way or another. My latest passion is telling true stories live, on stage. Because it scares the hell out of me.

As a memoirist, I focus on the undercurrents. Drawing from memory, diaries, notes, letters and photographs, I never ever lie, but I do claim creative license when fleshing out actual events in order to enhance the literary quality, i.e., what I might have been wearing, what might have been on the table, what season it might have been. By virtue of its genre, memoir also adds a patina of introspection and insight that most probably did not exist in real time.

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Tags: cootie, school, clique, Elvis
Characterizations: moving, right on!, well written


  1. Suzy says:

    Barbara, thank you for this lovely and touching story! In my memory of elementary school, all the boys thought all the girls had cooties, and vice versa. But your story shows that someone can be singled out for individualized cooties, which is of course much worse. Thank you for what you did, even if it took a while for you to get there. Did you ever see Simma again after 6th grade?

    • Thanks, Suzy! I’m not sure if I ever did see Simma again…if I did, I don’t remember. And, she’s not in any school photos…there’s just this very limited memory of her. I do have a younger brother that remembers her, and that she was tormented. Kids can be so cruel…it breaks my heart. I like to think that maybe she’s one of those outsiders on whom fortune eventually smiled. There was a troubled boy in that same class who went on to become a famous author…James Ellroy. (His story is not mine to tell, but if you look him up you’ll see why he was troubled.)

  2. Laurie Levy says:

    This is a beautiful story, Barbara. It also evokes an era very familiar to me. I remember the game Cootie and the way the word was used to exclude and taunt undesirable children. Clearly, you were an unusually kind and sensitive kid, The image of Simma on the bench reminded me of the effort some schools have made to put a “buddy bench” on the playground. The intention was for kids to do just what you did if someone was sitting on the bench. When I suggested my 7-year-old grandson sit there the next time his “best friends” wouldn’t let him join them for tag, his older brother told him not to do it because kids would tease him for sitting there. Yes, children can be cruel, and for these interventions to work, it takes adult guidance. Just sticking a bench outside is not enough.

    • Thank you so much, Laurie! And yes, I was unusually sensitive…I still remember my mother telling people “Don’t even look at Barbara cross-eyed or she’ll start crying, she’s so sensitive!” (Clearly, she wasn’t.) I’m not so sure about that buddy bench idea…the heart is in the right place, but I think your older grandson was probably right. It’s also a little like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. I keep going back to the idea of kindness beginning in the cradle. It just has to start there. Trump has brought bullying and bullies out of the shadows and into the limelight. Let’s hope whoever comes next brings compassion and kindness to light. Fingers crossed…and yes, vote, people! (And yes, I realize I’m preaching to the choir here!)

  3. Betsy Pfau says:

    Barbara, your story really hit home for me. I have written about my 6th grade travails before, so went in a different direction with this prompt, but in many ways, I was little Simma. We moved from Detroit to the suburbs when I was in 6th grade and I skipped a grade, so was the smallest, less mature (or developed, as the girls were blossoming), but still one of the smartest. I wore those horrible cat’s eye glasses, had buck teeth and a bad haircut. We built our house and it wasn’t ready at the beginning of the school year, so people had me over for lunch (at least some mothers were willing to), or my mother drove the several miles and took me to the Totem Pole for a burger. I was a scrawny kid. (Real my story on “Betrayal” called 11th Birthday.) I made two friends that year.

    When you reached out to the forlorn little girl, you really touched me. I needed a friend like you, back in the day. Thanks for helping Simma that day.

    • Ah Betsy, I too wish I could have been there for you back in the day. I went back and read 11th Birthday and some of your other stories. Here’s something I often wonder about: What happens to what we called the “popular” kids later in life? Of course it’s silly to generalize, but it does seem like the “outsiders” turn out to be the more interesting and more creative amongst us. I think just about every movie star, super model, pop star, or computer genius admits to having been an outsider as a child. Maybe early adversity eventually brings out the best in us…if we can just get thru it. Even though I was part of clique of kids from my neighborhood in elementary school, once I went into junior high it was an entirely different story. I was always thin, but I honestly didn’t even know it because no one ever mentioned it…until I hit 7th grade, when girls would actually say, “You’re so skinny!” I became exceedingly self-conscious, my ears ever alert to the sibilance of the phrase “so skinny,” sure everyone I passed was whispering about it. From 7th thru 12th grade, I was on the outside looking in. You can imagine my delight when the hippie style came in and suddenly skinny (with frizzy hair, no less!) was “in”…and I could wear sheer tops without a bra! I’m so glad you found your tribe in the theater milieu. And by the way, I just got back from my first ever visit to Cape Cod…and Martha’s Vineyard. I’m so envious…in a good way!

  4. A poignant story, Barbara. And good on you for reaching out to her. The Dalai Lama has said, notably, that “my religion is kindness”. We need more adherents like you.

    • I love that, Tom…thank you so much! It’s simple…I just wish it was easy. And by that I mean it’s sometimes difficult to think kindly of people who really raise your ire. If you know who I mean. But I’ve heard it said that it’s not what you think but how you act that matters. Because we can’t control our thoughts, but we can control our actions.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    I agree children need to be taught early in life about kindness, acceptance, and caring rather than meanness, exclusion, and bullying. At my preschool (www.cherrypreschool.org) , we had a simple rule: You can’t say you can’t play. Worked very well at that age. Like you, I am hoping (and will work) for a new president who will set an example of decency in our country.

    • I love “You can’t say you can’t play”! When I moved with my daughter to Hawaii when she was in the second grade, some of the other kids wouldn’t let her use the colors of crayon she reached for (to draw a rainbow, no less!), actually grabbing them away from her. Where do they learn this stuff?!? And so early! I’m thankful for all you do, Laurie!

  6. Laurie Levy says:

    One last comment, Barbara. Do you remember the old song from South Pacific You’ve Got to be Carefully Taught (to hate and fear). Also, never doing the opposite and not teaching very young kids to be kind contributes to learning this stuff.

    • Yes, especially teaching by example! We could go on and on with this important conversation, Laurie, but I do wonder how much is hard wired. For instance, I had four brothers…I say “had” because my older brother, Larry, died at 23. But there were five of us growing up, and four of us were, and are, kind. Larry was polite, but he wasn’t kind. Same parents. There may have been extenuating circumstances…a story for another day perhaps.

  7. Marian says:

    Wonderful story, Barbara, and it’s encouraging to know that girls in cliques could be sensitive!

    • Thanks, Marian…and I think it depends on the clique. We were in a clique simply by virtue of being neighbors. By 7th grade, cliques became clubs, complete with Greek names, that truly excluded others by voting on membership. Thankfully such clubs were eventually prohibited.

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