The Assembly

By Guest Contributor Bushra Rehman, cross-posted from The Feminist Wire

SLAAAP!!! Poster by Chitra Ganesh. Image via The Feminist Wire.

Queens, NY, 1984.

Nothing in P.S. 19 was ever heated enough. The auditorium, the cafeteria, the large windows with their pull-down plastic vinyl drapes rattled in another winter storm.

Ms. Cooperman, our teacher, frowned as she saw us shiver. “Bring your coats,” she said. “We’re having an assembly.”

It had snowed heavily the day before, and not many students or teachers had come to school. It would be another day spent smelling each other’s winter coats and feeling trapped, watching The Red Balloon, a silent film which seemed to be the only film the school owned.

But we did as Ms. Cooperman said because we adored her. It was clear she cared for all of us, even those who spilled over, out of our seats and into the hallways. We used to ask Ms. Cooperman why she had never gotten married. She always laughed and said, “I’m not married because I don’t want to be.”

On this snowy day, the entire fifth grade piled into the auditorium. I was lucky to get a wooden seat without gum glued to the bottom. Mr. Nichols, the vice principal stood in front of the stage. He was skinny, pale, fidgety, and always dressed in a tie and jacket.

“All right, boys and girls. Today we’re going to show a movie about a very important topic. I want everyone to pay attention.” We didn’t listen to him, of course. The teachers tried to shush us as he continued, “This is a movie about AIDS.”

Everyone got quiet. We’d been hearing about this new illness in whispers. We were children living in the middle of an epidemic, but no one ever told us anything. We were only taught to be afraid. Someone turned off the lights, and I had an apprehension this would be nothing like The Red Balloon.

In the opening scene, there were three men in hospital beds, thin as skeletons. They were all white with blue eyes, some with blonde or brown moustaches. Their skeletal faces reached up and out towards us.

The movie followed their lives as they became sicker and thinner, as they struggled to do everyday tasks, to drink a glass of water, their Adam’s apples bumping up against the skin. Their cheeks grew more sunken and their eyes shone out with light–the light of death.

In between the time in the hospital, there were pictures and home movies of them from when they were healthy. They were some of the most handsome men we’d ever seen. Their hair was perfectly groomed. Their skin was soft, their smiles open. These men were dying.

By the end of the movie, we were glued to our seats, paralyzed. In what we thought was the last scene, there was a movie still of one of the men. Underneath his name was written: Died, December 13, 1983. He was frozen in his hospital bed–the man who had been laughing with his friends just a few minutes before. We were stunned, and then there were girls crying in the audience.

We thought the movie was over, so we started clapping. Something we had stopped doing for The Red Balloon. But no–another picture came of a man from the movie. This man had died, too, only a few months later. And then the other, and the others. After each picture, after each man died, we clapped, wanting the movie to be over, wanting to do something with our fidgety hands.

After the lights came on, Ms. Cooperman was furious. She took us back to the room and held us during lunch. We tried to explain to her that we thought the movie was over.

“Again and again? You’re smarter than that.” She looked like she was going to scream or cry. Two things we never imagined her doing.

How could we explain to her we were clapping because we were terrified? We had never seen people dying this way. We were only ten years old and still didn’t understand what this illness was and what we knew was happening all around us. We were never told that, by clapping, we had accidentally participated in the gay backlash that darkened and still darkens the HIV/AIDS epidemic. We were only told the entire fifth grade would have detention.

I didn’t know then how inappropriate it was to show us such a film without explanation or education. I didn’t know how poor our neighborhood was, that there was an assumption that “people like us” even when we were ten years old were thought to be sexually active. I didn’t know how many queer educators there were in our school and what our applause had meant to them during this dark time.

I didn’t know the face of HIV would change and come to resemble our faces, the faces in our fifth grade audience. I didn’t know I would become an educator myself in the NYC public school system and would understand first- hand the difficult choices educators make every day. I didn’t know the trajectory of my life would bring me into a queer South Asian community where we would struggle decades later–as if it was 1984 all over again–to raise awareness about queer culture, the importance of sex education and sponsored healthcare for those who were HIV-positive.

In my late twenties, I joined SLAAAP!! (Sexually Liberated Asian Artist Activist People!!), a collective of queer artists and activists who were interested in creating sexy and humorous educational materials and media projects which discussed homophobia and HIV/AIDS awareness in Asian American communities. SLAAAP!! was sponsored by APICHA (Asian and Pacific Islander Coalition on HIV/AIDS) and collaborated with various community organizations, including The Audre Lorde Project.

In SLAAAP!! posters, we wanted to take a different stance from the fear-based HIV/AIDS imagery we had seen and experienced. Our posters presented life-affirming images and themes such as “Beyond Ignorance There Is Pleasure. . .” and “Someone You Love Is Queer. Recognize The Diversity Within Your Family.” These posters were displayed on bus shelters and on subways in Asian American neighborhoods in Queens, including areas close to PS 19. An excellent archive of these posters can be found on artist Chitra Ganesh’s website. Feel free to share them with others.

As another winter comes to New York City, the chill in the air reminds me of the silence, fear and ignorance which fueled those early days of the AIDS epidemic. It reminds me of the work necessary to achieve the World AIDS Campaign’s goal “Getting to Zero.”  No more new HIV infections, no more discrimination for those who are HIV+ and no more AIDS-related deaths. With persistence, with accurate information and with life-affirming actions, this is possible.

  • Loquat

    My high school had an incident like that when I was there in the mid-90′s, though on the topic of drug addiction rather than AIDS. The school had gotten one of those recovered-addict motivational speakers to come in and give his speech about how drug addiction had ruined his life, and of course none of the adults bothered to prepare the kids beforehand. It was a combined junior/senior high school, starting at grade 7, and the younger kids got their own special assembly to listen to the guy, and as it happened a few of them had the idea in their heads that when someone says, “My name is X, and I’m a drug addict,” you’re supposed to clap.

    The reasoning given after the fact was, I believe, that they’d seen scenes on TV where the drug addict admits to his or her addiction for the first time, and is applauded for taking this vital first step towards recovery. So the speaker delivered his “I’m a drug addict” line, the vast majority of the kids sat there wondering how the hell they were supposed to react to that, a few started clapping, and then, predictably, lots of the others assumed that those few who were clapping must be the experienced ones who knew the right thing to do in such a situation, and joined in the applause.

    I don’t recall if anyone was actually punished, but the speaker reacted much the way your Ms. Cooperman did.

  • Loquat

    My high school had an incident like that when I was there in the mid-90′s, though on the topic of drug addiction rather than AIDS. The school had gotten one of those recovered-addict motivational speakers to come in and give his speech about how drug addiction had ruined his life, and of course none of the adults bothered to prepare the kids beforehand. It was a combined junior/senior high school, starting at grade 7, and the younger kids got their own special assembly to listen to the guy, and as it happened a few of them had the idea in their heads that when someone says, “My name is X, and I’m a drug addict,” you’re supposed to clap.

    The reasoning given after the fact was, I believe, that they’d seen scenes on TV where the drug addict admits to his or her addiction for the first time, and is applauded for taking this vital first step towards recovery. So the speaker delivered his “I’m a drug addict” line, the vast majority of the kids sat there wondering how the hell they were supposed to react to that, a few started clapping, and then, predictably, lots of the others assumed that those few who were clapping must be the experienced ones who knew the right thing to do in such a situation, and joined in the applause.

    I don’t recall if anyone was actually punished, but the speaker reacted much the way your Ms. Cooperman did.

  • http://profiles.google.com/marc.k.mielke Marc Mielke

    I was about two years ahead of you in a fancy private school with proper sex ed, and we still treated that stuff more or less as a joke. What really enlightened us (meaning pretty nearly the whole school) is that the school hosted a theatre troupe specializing in ‘gay’ productions (Kiss of the Spider Woman, Equus), and that two very beloved teachers came out, apparently with the full support of the school. I like to say that gay men basically made our school’s arts department, which has become it’s main draw these days.

    And oh, to provide a bit of closure regarding that damn balloon:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dcl1K3qzvvE

  • Pingback: Smart people saying smart things

  • golby260

    I don’t have anything profound enough to say (or even profound, to begin with) that matches the caliber of this post. All I can say is I was born in 1984 in Atlanta. I was 10 in 1994, and, at the moment, I don’t quite remember when we covered AIDS in my suburban south-of-Atlanta elementary school, but it was likely either 4th or 5th grade when one teacher or another kind of covered what HIV was and what it actually does to its victim in our little health education segment of our school year. It was probably fifth grade, when we were reading out of these little books detailing each dangerous disease, drug and drug addiction there was out there that they wanted to warn us about. We had our first sex education class near the end of our fifth grade year, when they had separated us by sex, and all of the girls went to one teacher’s classroom and the boys went to the other, and without much detail, went into how babies are made, without, you know, the actual SEX part (it was pre-Olympics Atlanta, when my county Clayton was still predominantly white and the whites all over metro Atlanta were still voting Democratic, though barely — compared to other suburbs, Morrow, et al were the more liberal parts of town, but not by much — it was still GEORGIA, at the end of the day). We had separate, co-ed health classes covering sexual reproduction in the vaguest of terms still, but with more detail, in middle school and high school.

    Our middle and high schools’ educational material consisted of teachers (a lot of them from the P.E. department) warning us to use condoms if we MUST have sex, but emphasized abstinence above all else, and all of these old AIDS movies with Dionne Warwick’s That’s What Friends Are For playing on them and a lot of Don’t Say No stuff from the ’80s. I think it might have been either middle school or high school that we watched some movie that briefly mentioned the AIDS quilt, we watched a movie that mentioned that boy who caught HIV from his blood transfusion, including Arthur Ashe, so there was some emphasis as well about the multiple ways of getting HIV, and I learned what AIDS was and all in the most unoffensive yet perfunctory way possible. My high school health class, taught by one of our female coaches (rumored by our more judgmental classmates to be gay — “I don’t wanna be on HER team! She’ll stare at me in the shower!”), emphasized the most that you primarily catch HIV by sexual exchange of bodily fluids or by significant blood contact — she told us we had to swallow a gallon of saliva before we could get infected by that means. Ultimately, the only AIDS-anything that had made an everlasting impression on me without hiding facts, talking down to me for being a little black kid, or with having to deal with the consequences of other suburban politics was seeing Philadelphia on Showtime at home. I had to learn what actual sex was from reading an old health encyclopedia at home and trying to watch some of my dad’s bad porn, because for little old unsocialized, hermit-ized me whose mom never let me sleep over at her friends’ daughters’ homes, never mind really have friends at school, this was the only way I could even have an idea of what sex actually was without actually trying to have it, myself.

    I don’t think it was right that your teachers imposed that depressing video on you guys without any explanation of the context of the situation, but even back in the supposedly PC, liberal ’90s, they were being vague as hell about what AIDS actually was, and I can only wonder, seeing as everything nowadays seems to be regressing even further back race-politics-wise than even the ’70s, seeing as how all of the black family sitcoms I got to watch back when I was a kid seem to be an absolute rarity nowadays, what kids are learning *now.* But, who knows? It was probably the times, when there was still some major panic about it and when AIDS was still a new condition that made things turn out that way. On the other hand, I’m sure what I dealt with was just our in-the-middle school system running scared of any religious or “family” group who would make a fuss if they were to give us actual, blatant facts about what we were learning about, kind of like how (silly comparison, perhaps) the Canadian dubbers of Sailor Moon ran scared of American “family” groups so they overdid it and took out anything remotely Japanese about the show (and they certainly warped and erased the gay characters, too!) in the name of not offending anyone.

    Thank you for your post. And that included family tree graphic by Chitra Ganesh was awesome, too. :D