Acting against AIDS
Putting on a play made Jessica, 17, realize that teens are at risk and need to protect themselves.
I used to watch documentaries on the Independent Film Channel and HBO about AIDS victims in Africa and Thailand, and feel sad but not scared. It was happening there, in third world countries that had nothing to do with my life in L.A. Even when I heard statistics on the news about AIDS affecting teens in the United States, I still didn’t feel it related to me. No one I knew had AIDS and not being sexually active meant I couldn’t get AIDS. That’s the way I thought until my drama class put on a play called Carriers. Now I know teens should take the threat of AIDS seriously.
Everyone moaned when Mr. Bowden, my drama teacher, told us that we would be performing the play. The drama class has put on the play every two years for a long time. I’m sure that in 1992 the dialogue was hip and happening, but today it’s out of date. At one point, a guy with AIDS who is accused of spreading the HIV virus begins his monologue, “I’m Garren. And you’ve got to admit, I look good!” Who says stuff like that? I thought, “Mr. Bowden can’t actually believe that this play is going to magically cure AIDS. It’s time to move on.”
My friend didn’t want to act in it either. She said, “If kids are going to do it, they’re going to do it. Watching some play isn’t going to change that.”
Cheesy sound effects made it even worse
I had the most embarrassing part for one reason: sound effects. I can’t even roll my r’s to pronounce my last name correctly and they expect me to do sound effects? The title of my character was “Miss Public Health” and her job is to kill off sexually transmitted diseases. My teacher’s instructions were to come up with five shooting noises for when I zap away STDs like crabs and scabies. I came up with grenades, Tommy Guns, lasers, an atomic bomb and a shotgun. My Tommy Gun sounded halfway between gargling water and choking. It got a laugh, but not the kind I was looking for. The only sound Mr. Bowden laughed at was the shotgun. “That’s her impression of Dick Cheney,” he said. I ended up replacing the others with comic book sounds like boom and zap. I thought, “Sure, I’ll be embarrassing myself, but it’s only in front of freshmen.”
The play was a joke, and each day of practice I found a new way to keep it funny. “Watch this!” I’d say to my classmates as I attempted an Australian accent with my lines. No one took practice seriously. For goofing off, it was all pretty strategic. It was a key part of the operation to always have a lookout—someone standing just out of sight pretending to run their lines while keeping their eyes open for the teacher.
One time, a few of my friends and I got on the topic of bad jokes. One after another we’d tell an absolutely terrible joke and laugh hysterically at it. More and more kids came over to join the conversation until the whole class had migrated into our group—even our lookout. It came my turn to tell a joke. “What’s the difference between a pile of dead babies and a pile of rice?” I looked up at my friend. Her eyes were wide open. At first I thought the joke was too offensive. I turned around and there was Mr. Bowden standing behind my seat. “Go on” he said. I finished the punch line almost whispering, “You can’t pick up a pile of rice with a pitchfork.” He looked down at me expressionless, then slowly turned around and walked back to his office. Not two seconds went by before everyone was laughing.
Each day, Mr. Bowden would bring in an article with a depressing statistic designed for no other purpose, I thought, than to make us afraid to go outside. I found out that in 2006, California had the second-highest rate of AIDS in the country, with 140,000 cases. In Los Angeles, African Americans accounted for the highest number of AIDS cases at 17,960, followed closely by whites and Hispanics.
Soon, he gave us a deadline to return with our own articles. I researched online and found out that the number of people with AIDS has fluctuated and, in many cities, was on the rise. But I couldn’t connect with the statistics. Numbers don’t feel real; they characterize people as a mass. They don’t convey any sort of personal struggle.
One day Mr. Bowden sat us down and slipped a tape of And the Band Played On into the VCR. It was a 1993 docudrama on the discovery of AIDS before anyone knew what caused AIDS or even what to call it. I teared up at the end when the main character died. But even though it was a true story, it still felt like just a movie.
I put the same emphasis on the four letters of AIDS as I did on the three letters of VHS. AIDS was old and distant. No one talked about it. It couldn’t touch me. I was more worried about SATs and getting into college.
It finally hit me that teens can die from AIDS
I changed the way I thought about AIDS when I heard about it from someone I knew. A few days before the show, Juan, a senior in our class who I never really talked to, said quietly, “I knew someone who died of AIDS.” The room was silent and Juan was hesitant as Mr. Bowden asked question after question. Juan had to pause to keep from crying. It was clear this was hard for him. But he kept talking. I wanted to look away and plug my ears, but my curiosity wouldn’t allow it.
Juan’s friend, a senior at the time, was a heroin user. “He said he was going to stop, but that would only last until his next fix,” Juan said. “Users never clean their needles and they share with everyone.” Juan choked up. “Then one day he told me he had AIDS. He seemed scared. I’d never seen him like that before. Things started happening so quick. We had been told that you could live years with AIDS, but within a few months his face was already changing. It became pale and pasty, like he was dead or something. I could hardly recognize him.”
I couldn’t take my eyes off Juan as he cried, looking down at the ground. “Barely a year after he had been diagnosed his immune system gave out, and he died.” Juan took a deep breath. He seemed glad to get that off his chest. So many thoughts were racing through my head. “The kid was 18 when he died of AIDS?” “Could this happen to one of my friends?” I felt awful about how easy it had been for me to shrug off the pain that AIDS has caused so many people. I felt ashamed that I had acted like as long as AIDS didn’t affect me, it didn’t matter. I pictured myself in Juan’s position, thinking about how I would feel if I lost one of my best friends to AIDS. It was scary knowing there was nothing I could do. Juan’s story showed me that any of my sexually active friends could get AIDS and I couldn’t protect them. I finally realized that that was the point of the play—to get people to understand that AIDS can affect you, whether you’re the one with the disease or not.
I finally felt like I was a part of the play and of the fight against AIDS. We wanted the audience members to know about AIDS and how to protect themselves without living in constant fear of it. So much of how sexual education is taught is scaring teens. My sex ed class was a joke. The slides showed pictures of STDs and the teacher constantly pounded into our brains that “the first time can be the last time” and how “the safest sex is no sex at all.” Telling teenagers not to have sex and assuming you’re giving them all the education they need is not only naive, it’s life threatening. Teens need to know that sex doesn’t kill, diseases do, and there are easy ways to prevent them.
I hoped our audience would listen
FACTS ABOUT HIV/AIDS
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) causes AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome). This illness weakens the immune system, making it less able to fight infections and diseases. Currently there is no cure for AIDS.
1. You cannot get HIV from …
2. You can get HIV from …
3. HIV can infect anyone, male, female, young, old, gay or straight. Don’t think you’re not at risk just because you’re a teen. More than half of all new HIV infections in the United States occur among people under the age of 25. Almost 11.8 million youth around the world are living with HIV or AIDS. Throughout the world, almost 6,000 people ages 15 to 24 become infected with HIV each day.
4. You can live 10 or more years with HIV without showing any symptoms.
5. Birth control methods like the pill or the patch give you no protection from HIV. Condoms protect you, but only if they are used correctly.
6. You can get tested anonymously and without parental consent at a local health clinic. To find a clinic near you that offers free or low-cost HIV tests, call the STD/HIV hotline at (800) 758-0880 or go to aidshotline.org.
The day of the show consisted of four consecutive performances. At 8:15 a.m., the first audience poured in. Never before had so many freshmen been so intimidating. I looked at the kids in the audience. Loud, popping their gum, texting, listening to their iPods—they weren’t going to make this easy. But despite a few butterflies, I wasn’t nervous. The lack of curtains, costumes and paid admittance made the play feel less professional and more like I was just talking to the audience. I felt comfortable.
The first performance went well. I got a couple laughs, though I’m not sure if they were laughing at me or with me. With each performance, I tried to make my sound effects funnier to lighten the somewhat serious mood. They seemed to be reacting just like we wanted them to. Our jokes were followed by laughs and at times they were so into the play they’d forget to close their mouths.
At the conclusion of each performance, the cast came together for a question and answer session with the audience. It was amazing to see how much I had learned when I saw how little the audience knew. How could they actually think there is a cure for AIDS? One freshman asked, completely serious, “Can you get crabs from the beach?” A question that someone in every audience asked was, “Is it better to use two condoms?” I laughed at Juan’s response, “No double bagging!” Using two condoms is unsafe because the friction can cause the condoms to break. Once the audience started getting comfortable, the questions became more educational. Someone asked, “If you get an STD and you get pregnant, does your kid get it too?” Mr. Axelson, a health teacher for one of the classes in the audience, replied, “In the case of syphilis, yes.” I had no idea.
Before the performance we had been told to memorize the number to the Long Beach Health Department, where teens can go to get free HIV testing without having to tell their parents. Throughout the question and answer sessions one of the cast members would shout “1, 2, 3” and we’d all join in “(562) 570-4000.” After a while it seemed tedious and kind of cheesy. Then a girl who had been asking a lot of questions and joking around about not going outside anymore, shouted out from the back of the room, “What’s that number again?” We repeated it as she typed it into her phone. I knew that even if we didn’t get through to anyone else in that audience, we got through to her and she’ll be safer.
Looking back, I know I wasn’t the only student in my drama class who didn’t understand the point of the play in the beginning. And I’m willing to guess that I’m not the only teen who has found it hard to connect to a disease that seems so distant. But the fact is, AIDS isn’t distant and too many people find that out too late. About half of all new HIV infections in Los Angeles County last year occurred among people aged 15 to 24, according to the Long Beach Aids Foundation. A quarter of them were unaware they had HIV. I don’t want to scare you into thinking that if you have sex you’ll instantly get AIDS, but I also don’t want you to think that there is nothing to worry about. If you are sexually active, wear a condom. It might not seem like such a hassle when you consider the alternative. And go get tested. Most cities provide free HIV testing at their public health centers. All you have to do is show up. Your life is worth it.
If you liked this story, check out …
Listen up about HIV and AIDS. As an AIDS educator Sasha, 18, wants teens to know they could be at risk and how to protect themselves. (November-December 2007)
AIDS in Africa. After helping people in countries ravaged by AIDS, Olivia, 18, wants to dedicate her life to stopping the disease. WITH Photo gallery of Olivia’s trip to Africa. (November-December 2007)