When news started spreading around Westlane Middle School that a fourteen-year-old student had HIV, the harassment began. There were notes slapped on her locker warning her “No AIDS at Westlane.” The coach of her soccer team joked that they could use her disease to their advantage – because the other team would be scared. The girl suffered daily name calling, teasing and constant bullying.
Now the girl’s been pulled out of school by her parents, who are suing the Indiana institution for doing nothing to save their daughter from her tormentors. More than two decades after Ryan White, do kids still have to hide their HIV status?
There’s a marked difference in the knowledge out there about HIV from the instant fear and massive homophobia of my eighties childhood. Ours was perhaps the first generation to be raised to have safe sex not to ward off unwanted pregnancy but to protect you from disease. We grew up in the time of Ryan White . . . and of Magic Johnson and Arthur Ashe. We were taught to be cautious – perhaps taught too much. I remember the health teachers giving us a blow by blow on what HIV and then AIDS could to do the body. Then they gave us the rundown of every single way we could possibly contract the virus. They terrified us – to the point where a bunch of overactive teenage imaginations were envisioning catching HIV by brushing up against someone walking down the street.
Too much of the information thrown at us to keep us safe was off base and overblown. Now the generation raised to shake in their boots at the thought of AIDS is charged with raising their own kids. What are they telling them? Because it sounds like the kids in Westlane Middle School are scared. It sounds like they don’t understand that a teenage classmate with AIDS does not mean a death sentence for them. In this day and age it doesn’t even mean a death sentence for her (thankfully).