AIDS Education: One Teacher's Experience

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On Dec. 1, a memo was distributed at the school where I teach, stating that all building trash cans were to be lined with plastic to prevent the "unwarranted transmittance of body fluids.'' Nine days later, every teacher was issued a sealed brown envelope, marked "Urgent,'' containing a pair of rubber gloves and a note reading, "Stick these in a convenient place.'' The result: At least one disgusted teacher promptly deposited his rubber gloves in the trash can with plastic lining.

But another teacher, Rita (not her real name), found her gloves quite useful. She was going to comfort one of her 1st graders, who was upset and crying. Rita started to stretch out her arms to assist the child. Abruptly she stopped, turned back to her desk, slipped into her latex, and then resumed the business of wiping the child's tears.

It didn't end there. Not long after the gloves were issued, a staff breakfast was dedicated to the discussion of bodily fluids. "If we protect ourselves,'' explained the school nurse, "we can then go about our business of protecting the children.'' Such advice may indeed protect a child from some malady or another but what, I wonder, will protect children from the unspoken lesson of their teachers running first to the "convenient place,'' and then, armed in rubber, to the needy child?

Rita is an excellent teacher, in many ways more experienced and more proficient than I. She is, however, one of the many teachers who, consciously or unconsciously, are bringing their misconceptions about acquired immune deficiency syndrome into the classroom. I would never claim that sex-education programs of the previous decades were successful, but at least we didn't fool ourselves into thinking that teachers could prevent pregnancies by wearing the equivalent of rubber gloves.

Yet, instead of wondering why the teen-age-pregnancy rate is higher today than 10 years ago, instead of studying the failures of past programs, those involved with AIDS curricula seem intent on producing failures of an even greater magnitude.

It doesn't have to be this way. Educators could begin to develop a truly effective AIDS curriculum if they would look for new approaches to a new problem. Teachers would go a long way toward success in the AIDS-education effort if they dropped the rubber gloves and picked up the issue of prejudice.

Yes, prejudice. Take Clareece (also a psuedonym), one of my more ambitious students, who was racking her brain for an interesting topic to write about. Not wanting to write just that she would be a doctor, she asked me to name the disease she should cure. I named AIDS. She was silent for a minute, then spoke: "Nah, I don't want to cure that. How about cancer?'' This child rejected AIDS because adults around her reject it.

Like Patrick Buchanan. The syndicated columnist and former Presidential adviser wrote in 1983, "The poor homosexuals ... have declared war on nature, and now nature is exacting an awful retribution.'' Similarly, the writer of a letter that appeared in a local newspaper laughed at the notion that one could get information on "safe sex'' from a group calling itself the Gay and Lesbian Health Project: "From the people who brought us AIDS we are now to look for health? That's what I call newspeak in action. A thousand pardons, but I cannot make the connection.''

Unfortunately, the writer is making a connection, a connection that may deter him from practicing prevention, and lull him into a false sense of security and superiority. In the same fashion, Clareece clearly believes that AIDS is a disease that other people get, other people prevent, and other people cure. If we must save youngsters from danger, we must first save them from the prejudice that masks the danger. That is the program that U.S. Surgeon General C. Everett Koop should be pushing into 3rd-grade classrooms.

I have to be honest, though. I'm not so sure that I would want to be the one to teach such a class, any more than I want to teach "safe sex'' to 3rd graders. Legislators are pushing the AIDS issue into America's public schools, not because of their confidence in the education system, but because something must be done. This cry for help seems to suggest that schools are adept at handling issues of morality and values. But are they? What teacher is really going to feel comfortable discussing homosexuality with children when he knows that parents and administrators may have different opinions? President Reagan laments the absence of "values'' in modern curricula, but I wonder when these values were ever taught successfully.

Aside from selecting the values themselves, there are other obstacles. My classroom has no walls, and is cut in two by a hallway frequented by 5th graders, staff members, and school visitors. It is difficult enough to discuss matters of math and grammar in such a setting, but it is even more difficult to approach a subject that can in any way be regarded as controversial.

Mention the word "God'' when the superintendent is in the building, and you will see me sweat, stutter, and do anything short of shouting "Fire drill!'' Now, I have nothing against God. I even believe that there is a definite place for the discussion of religion in school. I become nervous, however, when one person's discussion of God seems to preclude someone else's interpretation of Him (or is it Her?). For every parent or administrator who feels that there is not enough religion in school, there is someone of equal authority who feels, just as adamantly, that there is too much. The teacher, then, must decide the issue on his own. And that's when he gets into trouble.

But issues of values, no matter how hard to teach, are not going to be gone from the classroom any time soon. President Reagan, who not long ago was demanding a return to "basics,'' is now insistent that young people have "less of a value system than they used to.'' "Why,'' he has asked, ''are these values not being taught in school?'' To make his point, the President referred to a teacher who asked his students a hypothetical question: What would you do if you found a purse containing $1,000 cash, and the name and address of the owner? Most said they would keep the money. But this is not what shocked the President most. According to Mr. Reagan, when the students pressed the teacher for his answer, the teacher did not emphatically state that he would return the money. He didn't say that he would keep it, but he also did not rule out the possibility. The President and several educational leaders ridiculed the teacher, stating that he was not fit to sit behind a desk. I am not so sure.

While most would say an honest person would return the thousand dollars, I think an equally honest person would admit to inevitable lapses, during which he might consider keeping the money. Honesty is defintely a value to be taught in school. But which honesty is better?

I was faced with a similar question during an alcohol- awareness discussion I had with my class. Following a planned lesson, I methodically discussed the effects of alcohol on the human body. Then one of my students asked me the inevitable question: "Have you ever been drunk?'' It seems to me that there are at least two possible answers to this question, both of which could be justified by "positive values.'' If I answered "yes,'' I would be telling the truth and reinforcing the idea of open and honest communication regarding alcohol use. As I learned in elementary school: "Honesty is the best policy.''

But is honesty the best public policy? By answering "yes,'' I may have reinforced the notion that "everybody gets drunk,'' thus jeopardizing the integrity of the entire program. I suppose there is no solution to this problem. As long as schools continue to grapple with social problems, educators will continue to grapple with questions concerning the teaching of values. As long as Clareece reveals her ignorance and prejudice regarding AIDS, teachers will continue to look over their shoulders to see if the superintendent is in the building. Some teachers will bring their own beliefs into the classroom, while others will keep quiet. All the while, the question will remain: In this day of AIDS and prejudice, can we attempt to make AIDS education "value neutral'' and still ensure its value?

Vol. 6, Issue 36, Page 32

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