Berkeley High Recognizes World AIDS Day

By Flynn Buxton-Walsh

Photo by Nora_Jang

As long as Amber Davis has been working at Berkeley High School as a Health Education Coordinator, the school has had a World AIDS Day. This year was no different — on Friday, November 30, the gallery in the west wing of the A–Building was once again packed with booths, educators, and students as they came together to teach and learn about HIV and AIDS in the world and in our communities. This year’s fair marked 31 years since HIV was first discovered, and featured a goal of “getting to zero [new HIV infections].”

On the following Thursday, December 6, the World AIDS Day assembly was held, focusing on women with AIDS and HIV. While HIV was initially thought of as a homosexual man’s disease, 57 percent of HIV–positive people are now women.
The fair featured booths from various health–conscious organizations, including the Downtown Youth Clinic, AmeriCorps, Berkeley Builds Capacity, Asian Health Youth Services, the Pacific Center, and Health Initiatives For Youth. Individual students and student groups such as Sexual Health Information From Teens and the Condom Club also took part.

One of these tables was manned by Berkeley International High School juniors Sarah Denison–Johnston and Alizé McCulloch, who each have an HIV–positive parent. Denison–Johnston, whose mother participated in the first clinical trials for a drug that would allow HIV–positive mothers to give birth to HIV–negative children, attended the International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. over the summer and brought back an abundance of information to share at the fair.
The Downtown Youth Clinic’s booth was promoting their new clinic, called Connecting Resources for Urban Sexual Health or CRUSH. This clinic spearheads the use of a new drug, Pre–Exposure Prophylaxis, that, taken regularly, can reduce the chance of contracting AIDS by ninety percent.

“I think it’s a good opportunity to learn from a wide variety of experts in the community about AIDS,” said Nick Pleskac, a BIHS biology teacher who took his freshman advanced biology class to the fair.

According to Davis, the annual fair continues to have an impact on students. “It brings a lot of students into the Health Center to get STI and HIV tested,” she said.

Hosted by BHS English teacher Alan Miller, the Thursday assembly featured performances from this year’s upcoming production of Vagina Monologues by activist and performer Rhodessa Jones and from Piper, the first student to be diagnosed with HIV at the BHS Health Center.

The Vagina Monologues skit, titled “Asking the Question,” was narrated by four BHS students and was about woman having sex for the first time and trying to ask her partner to use a condom.

The next performance was by Jones, who delivered a tale of searching for meaning and deities in our modern lives and stories of HIV–positive women. Jones, dressed in red with her face painted, strode down the aisle, handing out candy and condoms, reading palms, and telling students to savor their lives. The character Jones portrayed had come to her in a dream, and she was told by her Haitian hairdresser that this was the Haitian deity Gede trying to contact her.

“It’s fanciful, but organic,” she said.

The inspiration for Jones’s play came from her experience of turning fifty and talking to other women about their lives and menopause. Many of them told her about their experience being HIV–positive.

The final guest was Piper, who is now 36 years old and graduated from high school in 1994. Although she always used a condom, when she was sixteen she was raped by a man with whom she was trying to end a relationship, and was infected with HIV. Following the incident she visited the Health Center to get tested, and went to retrieve the results two weeks later with her mother. The nurse who told her she was HIV–positive began crying while delivering the news. Piper, not knowing how to cope, locked herself in her room for two weeks, eating only the meals her mom delivered.

However, she said that she felt she “had to come out and tell stories.”

With the support of her family, Piper received some of the best treatment available at the time from the East Bay AIDS Center. Although at first she had to take over twenty pills a today and suffered from severe side effects, advances in medicine have reduced that number to one pill each day with minimal side effects.

BHS Principal Pasquale Scuderi expressed his support for the World AIDS Day fair and assembly, saying both are valuable educational experiences for students.

“I’m pleased,” he said. “I hope we continue to offer this experience for kids to talk to experts in the field.”