aids ribbon

Today is World AIDS Day.

When I was in high school, I was one of only two members of the AIDS Awareness Club. The two of us were also in the Drama Club together, and on the editorial team for our school’s literary magazine, and best friends besides. Because of this, everyone decided we were a lesbian couple. Not sure how lesbianism follows AIDS, as they’re the least likely group to contract HIV, but that’s high school for you.

In college, I became an HIV Prevention Peer Educator. Basically, I taught sex ed to college students. As a student who wasn’t having sex, this was a particularly hilarious position. (Someone once called me the Virgin Sex Goddess. Best nickname ever.) My teaching partner was known for being a bit promiscuous, and he and I made a great team. Once a student complained that her boyfriend refused to wear condoms. I asked her why she’d waste her time on a guy who didn’t respect her health. My partner showed her how to put a condom on another person with her mouth. His method was probably more effective.

For my biology class, I decided to research the specific ways various HIV drugs worked on the cellular level. I spent a lot of time talking to the only other kid in the class who was really passionate about his project. (It was about mushroom farming, which is very cool.) Nobody else knew what to do with us.

When I lived in Malawi, around 15% of the population was HIV+. In the afternoons I’d sometimes walk to a nearby orphanage and play with the babies there. Some of them had not been tested yet. Some had. It was surreal, realizing how differently the futures of those babies would go, all based on one tiny virus.

In massage school, I completed my internship at a local nonprofit, working with HIV+ clients (and sometimes their stressed-out social workers). I was amazed at the diversity I saw. For some, being HIV+ was their entire identity. When they said “we,” they didn’t mean people in general, or the two of us, or even gay men. They meant people carrying the virus. But others nearly exploded over with the joy of being alive. I couldn’t dream of being so healthy, or living so fully.

Now, I work in a tiny, not-for-profit clinic where around 1/3 of our clients have HIV. I’m lucky to understand the side effects of their medications (peripheral neuropathy is particularly unpleasant) and to have enough knowledge to be sensible, compassionate, and unafraid.

I when I was 16 and hanging posters in my school’s hallways, I didn’t know I was building a career. I just knew that I was a teen who cared, and that care followed me around for a decade until I found a place for it in my professional life. If you’d asked me then what I would do when I grew up, I couldn’t have predicted any of it, and the question wouldn’t have helped me at all. But if you asked me, “What will matter to you?” I’d have given you a short, decisive list. It’s the same list now.

Maybe that’s a better way to prepare young people for the world they will inherit. Build the skills around caring, rather than trying to convince people that they ought to care more about their skills.

photo credit: Mister F. via photopin cc