What My Florida Middle School Taught Me About HIV and AIDS
14 years ago, my conservative school district taught a curriculum that may now be contested
I had a relatively insular middle school experience in a conservative Florida county. Most of my classmates were white and had Republican parents. Chick-fil-A was—and still is—the community’s hub. It was 2009 — Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell would be around for two more years and marriage equality wouldn’t become federal law until 2015. But by 2023 standards, my middle school education might be called radical and inappropriate.
Everyone adored my middle school science teacher. She used to be a field researcher and herpetologist. She was a cancer survivor. She treated all of her students with respect. She also brought a baby corn snake to class, which sealed the deal. Most importantly, she believed in our ability to learn about serious subjects at the appropriate age level. I still admire her for keeping all of us pre-teens semi-serious while showing us the snake’s cloaca (a reptile’s body part they use for both excrement and reproduction).
One day, she announced that our curriculum would be on hold for one class period. She had instructions from the principal that there would be a school-wide AIDS Education Day. I’m sure there was a standardized curriculum for this lesson—I recently asked my old classmate if he remembered this day in science class dedicated to AIDS awareness, and our memories align. But after I moved out West for college, I learned that not all states had such an inclusive, science-based, and non-stigmatizing middle school class on this virus (if they had one at all).
What Did an Age-Appropriate AIDS Education Day Look Like for Seventh Graders?
We learned that HIV was a virus that could develop into AIDS if enough T-cells (lymphocytes) were infected—tying this into our lessons about white and red blood cells in the immune system.
We learned that HIV could spread through bodily fluids such as blood, semen, vaginal fluids, and breast milk. However, our teacher emphasized that it could not be spread through sweat, urine, or saliva. She connected these facts to the biology lesson we were…