I was getting blank stares from a sea of uniformed fifteen-year-olds as I fumbled through explaining how AIDS doesn’t actually kill an infected person- opportunistic infections are what inevitably brings about the demise of the patient. It was a struggle. I felt like I was explaining the process well but I didn’t get a single reassuring nod from the crowd. I hesitated and then turned to Oscar Ruben, my counterpart for the HIV/AIDS training I was conducting, for help. In previous sessions he was quick to jump in and eloquently state what my spanish language deficiency prohibited me from spitting out. Not that day. I glanced over to the side of the room where he was standing silently and noticed he didn’t jump in to save me because he was otherwise occupied. Occupied texting on his Blackberry. If he had taken a second to look up from his mobile device he would have seen the look of, “are you f-ing kidding me?” on my face. Excuse the profanity but I want to be honest to my true state of mind in that moment. It seems not even the third world can escape the digital world.
Oscar Ruben never did look up from his phone so I continued to explain myself in circles until I asked the students, “Understand? Clear as water?” And the responded with a resounding, “Sí.” We ended up wrapping up the training with much success, despite Oscar Ruben’s diminishing interest. In three days we gave three HIV/AIDS education and prevention training sessions to the entire high school- a total of 79 students.
Throughout the process I was surprised at how easy it was for me to talk about sex in front of a classroom full of pubescents. Every time I had to say, “secreciones vaginales,” I thought to myself, “those words would not roll so easily off my tongue if I was speaking in English.” Maybe they would, I just never have had the opportunity to test it out.
My favorite part of the sessions was a question and answer period. Right after an activity we did acting out how HIV attacks white blood cells, I’d give each student a piece of blank paper and ask that they write a question on it. Any question pertaining to HIV/AIDS or sexual activity in general. I received a lot of broken/ripped condom questions, a few asking for the symptoms of HIV/AIDS and even one that asked if a girl could get HIV from having sex with a 40 year old man. I’m still a little worried about the girl that asked that question.
The purpose of conducting HIV/AIDS training is to educate the adolescent population on the disease, how it is transmitted, how it can be prevented and to discredit stereotypes about the disease. A secondary benefit of these sessions is to allow the teenagers to speak openly about sexual reproduction and the inherent risks of being sexually active. The sessions in themselves were truly gratifying however, there was one moment, outside of the classroom that I am most proud of.
During the question and answer session of our first training, Oscar Ruben took charge of reading the papers and I did the answering. Nearing the end of the pile he picked up the following question and read it aloud, “Can HIV be sexually transmitted from male to male?” I could tell the question made him uneasy- homosexuality is a touchy subject in Guatemala. It pained me to watch him read it through and then it broke my heart to hear him squeak a little uncomfortable giggle after the question. He did this in front of the entire classroom. Not the best behavior for promoting tolerance. I resolved to have a discussion with him before the next session.
The next day before our second training I pulled Oscar Ruben aside and told him that I thought we did a wonderful job the day before, the kids seemed really receptive, blah, blah blah... there is only one thing we need to watch out for today.
“We have to remain completely professional, especially during the question period, I noticed yesterday you laughed when reading the question about HIV being transmitted between two men.”
“I did?” He responded with seemingly genuine astonishment.
“We can’t laugh at any question especially ones pertaining to homosexuality because if there is a homosexual in the class we don’t want to make them feel uncomfortable. We need to be completely accepting and professional. If you don’t feel comfortable reading those questions, let me know because I can read them instead.”
“No,” he replied, “I can do it.”
Sure enough, during the second session we received a question identical to the one Oscar had laughed at the day before. As he breezed through the papers at the onset of the answer session I saw him move the question from the middle of the stack to the end. When it finally came up, the slip of paper gently rattled in his quivering hand. However, he read the question aloud in a completely unwavering voice. “Can HIV be sexually transmitted from one man to another?” No giggle.
We both gave a sigh of relief.