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Breaking the silence

WITH THE OBSERVANCE of World AIDS Day tomorrow, my thoughts have turned to a startling fact here at home. Although 33 states have mandated acquired immune deficiency syndrome education in their public schools, and 17 states have strongly recommended it, a deadly silence about AIDS persists in most guidance counselors' offices, school auditoriums and communities around the country.

The silence surrounding AIDS is greatest when it comes to young children. I would argue that this silence not only confirms the unspeakable nature of this disease but also makes it much harder for us to talk about AIDS later, when adolescent risk-taking behaviors press our panic buttons.

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Of course, a child's most difficult questions about life, death, health and illness often catch us off guard. As we are rushing to the dentist with our children or escorting a boisterous group of 4-year-olds to the park, questions about a woman in a wheelchair or a homeless man on the street are apt to find us unprepared. But our silence at these times may do far more harm than even our most awkward words.

For one thing, our children know about AIDS. They were born into a world where the disease is well into its second decade. Even if a vaccine is developed tomorrow, they will never have known a world without AIDS. In New York City alone, more than 70,000 children will lose one or both parents to AIDS during the next few years. Tens of thousands of other children in New York have a close relative or a family friend who is HIV-positive. And in classroom after classroom, I have heard the uncensored comments and watched the play of children who know about AIDS: a second grader who worried aloud if the illness of the classroom rabbit was caused by the human immuno-deficiency virus which causes AIDS; the kindergartner whose toy ambulance was speeding to a hospital carrying someone suffering from AIDS; a first grader warning a classmate not to pick up a stick in the park because drug users go there at night and the stick might carry AIDS.

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If children already know about HIV infection and AIDS, why are their teachers and parents so afraid to talk about it?

As a teacher and curriculum consultant, I believe that our reluctance to talk about AIDS is fueled by the belief in childhood innocence and the desire to protect children that also inhibit our ability to discuss issues of community violence and substance abuse.

In a substance-abuse prevention project in East Harlem, for example, I am continually reminded how hard it is for classroom teachers to talk to children about the devastation in that community caused by crack-cocaine use. In a kindergarten class in the Bronx, where children have just described in wrenching detail a schoolyard shoot-out between two adolescents, administrators insist that school should be a place where children can set these harsh realities aside.

I hear repeatedly that children aren't ready for these difficult topics. That they have more pressing needs -- the need to play and to make sense of their immediate family lives, as if these needs were separate from, rather than enmeshed in, the realities of their world. I am left to consider whose readiness is questionable.

Our belief in childhood innocence is not new. It is embedded in Biblical stories and religious dogma, in the words of Romantic poets and Victorian novelists, and sold today along with advertisements for baby shampoo, children's clothing and magazines heralding a return to traditional values. The ideology of childhood innocence was essential in the 19th century, to rationalizing the growth of protective institutions such as the public schools, residential facilities for wayward youth and the juvenile court system.

That belief in childhood innocence is inevitably linked to a belief in childhood ignorance. Nowhere is this more evident than in schools in which it is the adults' knowledge that matters, the state curriculum that determines what is taught and the objective test that certifies achievement. Despite what children have learned at home, on the street, or in the media, many educators assume that it is their role to protect children from knowledge of the world in which they live. Or, at best, they silently agree not to know what children already know. For if they admit to knowing what children know, they will be implicated, forced to respond and to join children as they explore a world as filled with uncertainty and danger as with security and pleasure.

Many educators would prefer to bury their heads in the safer sands of the reading or mathematics curriculum. No one really wants to initiate children into conversations permeated by difficult and sometimes painful questions. Often I have heard teachers rationalize their failure to talk about AIDS by saying that children do not ask about it. But how often do children spontaneously ask about the colonial experience in America or about the angles of a right triangle? Yet, these are subjects we have no difficulty imposing on the curriculum.

And when did responsibility for breaking silences pass from adults to children?

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Progressive educators, from John Dewey to Paulo Freire, have decried the irrelevance of curricula that fail to build on the knowledge that children bring to school. Today, this is knowledge of illness as well as health, death as well as life, homelessness and poverty as well as the security of hearth and home.

The innocent and ignorant child we greet every September is a child we educators have constructed out of our own nostalgia for the past, our hopes for the future and our denial of the present. The child of the present is a child in the world. This is a child who comes to school knowing the world in which he or she lives and is filled with stories that make it meaningful. Our schools should provide safe spaces where children can tell all their stories. Isak Dinesen wisely reminds us that "All sorrows can be borne if you put them into a story, or tell a story about them."

Educators who listen to these stories can confirm for children the important connection between their lives outside of school and the work that takes place within its walls. Academic skills are tools that enable children to deepen and extend their understanding of the things that matter to them -- the births and deaths of family members, the comings and goings of significant people, the decay and reconstruction of local communities. The classroom can be a workshop in which children learn to re-create their experiences in words and pictures, movement and dramatic arts.

There are also meaningful learning opportunities -- professionals to be interviewed, letters to be written to those who determine policy, even immediate gestures of caring to be made.

When children become actively engaged in understanding a difficult issue, they learn about making an impact on their environment, no matter how small. Ultimately, prevention of diseases like AIDS require the determination of people who believe they can make a difference. For when we speak the language of AIDS, we speak the language of social change. And perhaps that is the greatest fear of all.

Jonathan G. Silin teaches at the Bank Street College of Education in New York City.


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