TEARS SPILLED FROM Shirley Gershman's eyes and her voice became thick and husky. But she continued talking to the audience of eighth-grade Sunday school students, and they rode through the emotional storm with her.
"Howard was just like you," she tells them, "and just like you, he was not invincible. He got AIDS. But you do not have to get it. You hold your future in your hands."
Acquired immune deficiency syndrome took her brilliant starburst of a son, Howard Ashman, and Shirley Gershman has responded to tragedy with a vow to spare other mothers the anguish she has endured. She does so by preaching abstinence, prevention and communication to teen-agers.
Shortly after her son was laid to rest last March, Mrs. Gershman began appearing at congregations throughout Baltimore with a stellar panel of AIDS experts. The 90-minute program is part of the Steven A. Kaufman Outreach Project on AIDS, coordinated by Jewish Family Services and funded by Buddy and Linda Kaufman as a living memorial to their son, who died of the disease -- at 32 -- two years ago.
Using frank and forthright language, Mrs. Gershman describes the final months of Howard Ashman's life. She explains how the disease ravaged his body, attacking even his powers of speech. She re-creates a painful mother-son phone conversation in a stage whisper, and the students lean forward so as not to miss a single word.
She motions to a black-and-white framed photograph of a once vibrant, smiling Ashman, a photo she takes with her wherever she speaks. Her son's pain ended when he died, she tells them, but the anguish continues for the survivors.
She opens a colorful volume of the art and artistry of Walt Disney animation to the chapter in the back detailing the making of Ashman's masterwork, "Beauty and the Beast," the film he worked on right up to the week before he died. That her son kept his illness a secret from her for so long added to the torment, she says, and she implores students to understand that it is best not to hide things from their parents. Invariably, she says, it makes things worse.