ELLSWORTH – Students at Ellsworth High School observed World AIDS Day Friday with a reminder of how close-to-home the fatal disease may strike.
Wide red ribbons were periodically dispensed to students and faculty throughout the day, until 2 p.m., when exactly 110 students were wearing a scarlet band – the same number of people in America who are infected with HIV each day.
“If it’s not to the point and to the facts, they’re not going to be interested,” said Lindsey Mason, a junior who helped organize the activity as president of the school’s AIDS advocacy team. “We always have to catch them off-guard – we don’t do it unless it’s going to go down with a bang.”
In an all-school assembly Friday afternoon, Mason and about 20 other members of the AIDS team revealed the purpose behind the mysterious red bands, and used the nervous crowd of students who wore them to demonstrate the scope of today’s AIDS epidemic.
Thirty-five students were segregated to represent the number of people who acquired HIV nationwide during a single school day, the 33 people in Maine who have contracted the infection since January, and the 38 Mainers who were diagnosed with AIDS this year.
Five students were taken aside to depict the Maine deaths from AIDS in 2000 thus far.
“Hopefully we’re teaching people that AIDS is in all communities,” said Tabby White, a junior who serves as vice-president of the AIDS team. Since joining the group, White learned that AIDS has touched several local families.
“I was shocked – I didn’t think it could be in Ellsworth,” she said.
The mass of people wearing armbands – about one-sixth of the school’s population – filled the gym floor, surprising some students with its sheer size.
“I knew it was really bad, but I didn’t know just how many people,” said Katie Hodgkins, a senior who wore a red armband Friday.
A few girls let out nervous giggles, and some students mugged for attention as they walked down to the gym floor Friday, but most of the observers sat quietly listening to their peers.
“Silence says a lot,” Mason said. “When we do things, and people are all quiet, you know they’re thinking. All the maybes are running through their heads.”
Despite their involvement with AIDS advocacy, Mason and White said they still get a shiver when faced with new facets of how the disease has impacted American life.
Mason recalls how she felt at a recent conference on the connections between AIDS, homosexuality and hate crime when she watched a film about the life and death of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student killed in Wyoming last year.
“Watching that video, I had a whole lot of frogs in my throat,” Mason said. “Part of our preparation is always to buy tissues.”
When a young mother, who contacted HIV as a sexually active teen, spoke about her struggles last year, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house, White said. The team hopes to arrange for a guest who can personally speak to the AIDS risk inherent in drug use to address the student body in January.
The AIDS team leads several presentations each year, be it a guest-speaker who is living with the disease, a slide show about the AIDS quilt, or a quirky “condom dance” that teaches safe-sex to the beat of Queen’s “This Thing Called Love.” Creativity is key, team members said.
Originally, a grim reaper was to have selected the 110 students and wordlessly marked them with blood-red armbands Friday.
“We decided that between interrupting classes and scaring people, we’d better simmer it down a little,” Mason said.
Silly skits and creative approaches can draw teens’ interest, and make it easier to talk about the harsh realities of AIDS in Maine, say the team members.
“It’s just being real – we don’t try to put ourselves on a pedestal,” Mason said.
For most activities, the AIDS team prefers to separate the student body by age – the more mature students can handle a more adult discussion than the freshman class, she said.
“They still kind of tee-hee whenever you talk about sex,” Mason said.
But this year, the team’s focus is not on heterosexual or homosexual passing of the AIDS virus, but on the high AIDS risk that can be associated with intravenous drug use, or even body piercing and tattooing.
Posters scattered throughout the school building list frightening statistics about all aspects of AIDS – reaching out to all members of the Ellsworth High School Community. And the community has responded. As they exited the assembly, many students commented on how much they already knew about AIDS. And everywhere, tiny red ribbon loops were pinned to jackets, sweaters and hats.
“I’ve seen kids all day asking for ribbons – we actually ran out,” said Andrea Beardsley, adviser for the AIDS team. And the interest comprised a wide variety of the school’s social groups – administration, faculty and every type of student, she said.
“It’s been a cross-section,” Beardsley said.
Students were also invited to participate in the “Tic-Tac Attack,” an exercise that shows what living with AIDS can entail. Students receive a bag of different candies to represent the drug cocktail that HIV patients take. A strict regimen directs the student when to take the 20 “pills” and in what combinations.
Following the schedule was far more difficult than participants expected.
“It’s erratic – it’s really hard to remember to take the pills,” said Zachary Wright, a senior who volunteered to pop Skittles at set times throughout the day.
But the activity creates empathy for an AIDS patient whose life is spent in just staying alive, said White, who struggled through “The Tic-Tac Attack” at a recent conference.
“People see how AIDS does affect how you schedule your time,” she said. “AIDS doesn’t revolve around you, you revolve your life around AIDS.”