“Oh no!”, you teachers will think, “for over ten months we’ve been talking about infections, viruses, vaccines that don’t arrive, and today we also have to celebrate World HIV and AIDS Prevention Day? Haven’t we dealt with the topic of epidemics enough already?”
Yes… in this period it will be even more difficult than usual to find a way to talk about a disease that still exists and has no definitive cure. But it’s never been more important to take the time to discuss this issue with students, and remind them that, unfortunately, there is another obstinate and powerful pandemic that threatens our health, and explain to them that, fortunately, from this other terrible pandemic we can easily defend ourselves.
ACTIVITY – Which aspect of any pandemic scares you the most? Explain it in a tweet to a friend
Viruses manage to spread and evade medical treatment by hiding well, making themselves invisible within our blood and our world. This is their strength. That’s why we avoid talking about them, keeping them in our closets, being afraid to call them by name, we end up playing their game.
An English literature teacher explains it well, in the letter below.
Dear friends of Black Cat,
You are right when you say “Stories are words to remember”. But to be remembered, the stories and the words they contain must be told out loud. Unfortunately this has not always been possible.
I am part of the generation that saw the birth of AIDS and the death of many people without understanding a thing.
I had a high school professorship in New York State from 1976 to 2018, and the scenes that many kids are seeing today for the first time (ambulance lines, lists of names of people who are no longer there) are in my mind only a deja-vù of what started to happen in the 80s, and didn’t stop happening for at least a decade. Children and adults crushed in a few months by an evil that was too fast to stop, men and women crushed by the disease and social judgment that branded them as sinners who had gone looking for it.
AIDS was an issue which, all things considered, it was better not to talk about, at least not at school. Families would take care of it, if they wanted to.
I remember that when the newspapers began to talk more about the epidemic, the headmaster of the high school I worked in assembled all of us teachers and expressly told us that what we were starting to talk about so much was not a topic to be addressed in our lessons. In no uncertain terms, the headmaster told us to stick to our own subjects’. We should have just taught our own subject, us.
At that time, my pupils and I were reading “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” by Robert Louis Stevenson. Furious at the order the Headmaster had just given us, thinking that such a blind mentality was the exact opposite of education, I went to class, opened the book, and read aloud:
“She had an evil face, smoothed by hypocrisy; but her manners were excellent.”
Of the people who were starting to crowd the hospitals with symptoms that were difficult to explain, nobody knew much, and for this very reason they should have talked about it a lot, and they should have discussed it with the very teenagers who, because of their desire to discover life quickly, were more exposed to risk.
But, in those days, not all the stories were words to remember, on the contrary, there were words that could not be used at all, phrases that if one of us in the teaching staff had said them, would have resulted in that member of staff being immediately called to the headmaster’s office. Words that even now – being uncertain that the world has changed so much since then – I wonder if they can be uttered.
People were getting sick, dying, and the school kept pretending nothing was happening. Teaching Math, Geography, Science, as if what they were writing in the newspapers and repeating on TV was just a bad science fiction novel.
And in the meantime, year after year, class after class, I kept reading Stevenson to my students.
“Jekyll had more than a father’s interest; Hyde had more than a son’s indifference.”
It was difficult to explain literature and life in those years. It was difficult to teach children to grow up without telling them that to do so they would have to protect themselves. I was a nice teacher, and very popular with students, but unable to protect them from the evil that, outside the classroom, hung over them like an axe. I too, like the heroes of the book I was teaching, was torn between dedication and indifference. I was the esteemed Dr Jekyll who knew how to raise his students with the power of literature but, at the same time, I had to avoid letting them know that, while they were reading beautiful and disturbing stories about the secrets of the human soul, Mr. HIV was reaping death and destruction in the streets.
Evil loves to hide, and the more we allow it to, the more it proliferates.
So, every evening, Dr Henry Jekyll would return home after having fulfilled his task as an educator excellently and, in the darkness of his home, the shadow of Mr. HIV would appear, the sense of guilt for all the things I had omitted to say, for all the unsaid things left unsaid, for all those unspoken words that would lead to who knew what terrible consequences.
Times have changed, fortunately. Maybe, I don’t know for sure. But I do know that, paradoxically, this current talk of pandemics and infections may well make everyone forget how cruel and devious Mr. HIV can be. You get distracted for a moment, you start talking about something else, maybe you concentrate on another apocalyptic pandemic, and then he comes back to rub his hands and multiply, to cover the world with his shadow as soon as he is called up by this magic spell of silence.
One must never lower one’s guard, with Mr. HIV, one must never lower one’s guard, not even in the most confused moments. He suffers from words, Mr HIV, he is weakened by dialogue; knowledge is his worst enemy.
And, as Stevenson wrote, hypocrisy is the best way to let the evil defeat us.
ACTIVITY – How important do you think it is to look for information on topics you don’t know and exchange views with your friends and acquaintances? Justify your answer.
I couldn’t do it, in all those years in my teaching post in New York. You, today’s colleagues, probably can. Don’t miss the opportunity. Do not let Mr. HIV enjoy your silence.
“If he be Mr. Hyde” he had thought, “I shall be Mr. Seek.”
Seek. This is the word that you can help our teenagers become better, and defeat shadows. And here is what perhaps all of us teachers should do. Turn them all into Seekers. Teach them to search, to investigate, to not settle for simplistic explanations. Make them fall in love with the truth, whatever it may be.
Return to the concept of education as an instrument of salvation. From ignorance and from everything that, remaining in the dark, hurts us.
And now allow me to end by signing not with my name, but with what perhaps represents me better than anything else.
Dr Henry Jekyll
TO GO FURTHER
Answer the teacher who explained to you the dangers of poor information, the risk of indifference and how literature can play an important role in knowledge acquisition.
Work in pairs or in groups and prepare a written blog explaining what questions you would like to ask about medicine and society about the development and treatment of any disease affecting a large part of the population. Put your blog in context by explaining the reasons for your questions. Here are some points you might wish to include:
– the date and place of the beginning of the illness
– whether medicine has developed the same level of research worldwide
– whether the situation has improved in recent years
– how widely available the information has been
– your suggestions for keeping the level of knowledge high and how to spread it
– what risks people may be exposed to as a consequence of incorrect information
– which means of communication are best for the transmission of information and which are of little use
Finish your blog by indicating which book you have read that in your opinion has stimulated you to improve your knowledge and ask questions.