The eighth-grade students sitting on the floor of the commons room at Ruxton Country Middle School look as if they may be thinking they are too old to enjoy a puppet show.
Recognizing what could be a tough audience, Willie Charpentier, prevention coordinator for the Baltimore County Office of Substance Abuse, asks the 13- and 14-year-olds to "take off the hat that says, 'I'm cool,' . . . and put on a hat of curiosity."
Then she introduces the puppets, whose dialogue is a quick course about AIDS.
The large puppets are from the Kids on the Block Inc., a Columbia organization that stages performances to teach children and adults about AIDS and other social issues such as drugs, the disabled, child abuse and teen-age pregnancy.
The two 20-minute performances at the Ruxton school, in the 6200 block of N. Charles St., were followed by question-and-answer sessions, with the answers coming from the puppets, named Natalie Gregg and Joanne Spinoza.
In one skit, for older students, Natalie first tells her friend, Joanne, that she has contracted AIDS, acquired immune deficiency syndrome, by having sex with her husband, who got the virus because he had formerly used intravenous drugs.
Joanne reacts with shock and fright, and her confusion leads to a discussion about myths and misconceptions about how the disease is spread. Natalie emphasizes openness in discussing sex, explaining that the virus can be transmitted from one person to another only through bodily fluids.
In another skit, geared toward younger children, Natalie teaches Joanne how to play chess while the two talk about the progression of Natalie's condition. In her remarks, Joanne expresses acceptance of Natalie as a person rather than reacting in stereotypical fashion to what has become a public source of fear and panic.
While they may have thought they were too old for a puppet show at first, the older students who watched the second performance turned out to be among the most vocal. However, many seemed more comfortable addressing their questions to Charpentier, rather than to the puppets.
"After you get AIDS, how long do you have to live?" one asked. (It varies.)
"Can you get AIDS from having your ears pierced or getting a tattoo?" (Theoretically, yes, which is why it's important that new needles are used for each person.)
"Is there any way to know how long you've had it?" (No.)
To provide answers, Charpentier says, she keeps up with the latest in AIDS research through Johns Hopkins Hospital and the federal government's Centers for Disease Control.
"We want to teach kids to be accepting," Charpentier says. "Knowledge really protects."
Kim Einolf and Jae Wu, yesterday's puppeteers, say they enjoy the performances, especially the children's reactions.
"I'm getting through to them and I know it by the looks on their faces," says Einolf, 19, a student at Dundalk Community College.
Last summer, Kids on the Block puppeteers performed the AIDS skits more than 25 times for children in church groups, camps and day-care centers under the auspices of the county's Department of Recreation and Parks.
Though the public schools in the county use Kids on the Block puppets and skits to educate students about the dangers of drug use, they do not use the AIDS skits. Baltimore County students receive AIDS education in grades three, eight and 11.
John Heck, coordinator of the Office of Health Education for the county, says that rules regarding sex education specify "certain things we can do and certain things we can't do."
For example, the skit for third-graders talks about safe sex, but the public school students don't receive sex education until fifth grade, Heck says.
"You haven't worked with kids on sexual intercourse, so what's safe sex?" he asks.
The cost of adding a Kids on the Block AIDS performance to the AIDS curriculum in the county would present another problem, Heck says.
For its drug education, the county has already purchased nine sets of four puppets, staging and props, each costing approximately $3,000.
"It's a matter of logistics as well as a matter of wording," Heck says.