June 2, 2011
The topic of HIV came up in my ninth grade health class this year. As one of my classmates wrote the letters H-I-V on the board, my teacher asked if anyone knew what these letters stood for. A few hands quickly shot into the air and, someone stated: "Human Immunodeficiency Virus." Nodding his head, my teacher turned back to the board and began furiously scribbling statistics and facts about HIV/AIDS, things that we had all heard before. It was not until my teacher turned around and said,
"You better write this down because there is going to be a test," that people actually took out paper and pencils and begin copying the notes.
Suddenly a boy in the back of the room picked up his head and asked, "If someone with the virus sneezes on you, does that mean you get AIDS?" The room exploded with laughter as if that was the stupidest thing they had ever heard. But it soon quieted down when it became clear that he was completely serious. My teacher calmly began going through the ways the virus can be transferred: vaginal secretion, blood-to-blood contact, semen, and breast milk.
Sitting there in my high school health class, I was surprised by how little my peers knew about HIV. We were writing down the facts being thrown at us in order to do well on our next exam, but the disease didn't plague us in the way it haunted those who came before us.
My generation takes HIV for granted. For many of us, it's not as personal as it was for our parents and others who watched loved ones die from it.
In health class we also learned how to protect ourselves from sexually transmitted diseases. Despite the warnings and reminder "to use a condom every time" no one seems to be following the rules. A very popular show among my peers is "16 and Pregnant." The title is pretty self explanatory, but the show involves girls having unprotected sex and having to deal with getting pregnant at a young age. Those girls could just as easily be getting infected with AIDS. And even as we learn that exchanging blood spreads HIV, we live in a world obsessed with young vampires. The Twilight series, a huge teen phenomenon, is all about a bunch of beautiful blood-sharing creatures. Is this supposed to be a metaphor for HIV? If it is, it's over most of our heads. What we see is the thrilling fantasy of teen love. The main character in the series even ends up getting pregnant, thinking that she could have unprotected sex with a vampire without consequences. Yet again we are exposed to the matter of sex, pregnancy and known consequences, but for most, a breathtaking vampire seems worth the risk.
HIV doesn't feel like it kills. I know people who are living with the disease, and they seem fine. They take their medication and function like everybody else. Magazine advertisements for HIV drugs show happy couples going out to lunch or riding bikes. None of these advertisements show someone who is sick or even dying from the once deadly illness. My cousin has HIV. I've known her my entire life, but just recently learned that she's been living with the virus. She looks and acts like everyone else, so I never would have guessed if I hadn't been told. I have not yet had a chance to discuss the disease with her but I would like to. I want to know how she lives, how she feels, and what medications she takes, because I don't want to be one of those people who take HIV for granted.
Kali Villarosa is a 14-year-old Brooklynite completing her freshman year in high school. She enjoys writing, reading and playing soccer.