By Guest Contributor Bushra Rehman, cross-posted from 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.