A YOUNG WOMEN INFECTED WITH HIV RETURNS TO HER OLD SCHOOL
LOVE AND FEAR IN THE AGE OF AIDS
A YOUNG WOMEN INFECTED WITH HIV RETURNS TO HER OLD SCHOOL
The car speeds west along the Trans-Canada Highway as snowflakes swirl from an aluminum colored sky. “The worst thing is going home,” Trudy Parsons says, huddled in the front passenger’s seat, wearing a baggy men’s overcoat. As the car nears Bay Roberts, the Newfoundland outport 100 km west of St. John’s where she spent her teen years, Parsons, now 22, recalls the wave of panic she felt when she returned to her old high school a year ago. There, in a crowded classroom, her voice quavered as she warned teenagers about the dangers of HIV, which is believed to cause acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS); Parsons tested positive fór the virus in November, 1991. Now, with another room full of students waiting at her old school, her anxiety again deepens. “I grew up with these people,” says Parsons, who works full time for the Newfoundland AIDS Committee. “My family lives out there—and I fear that they will be judged because of a mistake that I made.”
The place happens to be Bay Roberts, but it could be anywhere. From Newfoundland to British Columbia, Canadian teenagers are struggling with the urgent issue of how to conduct their lives in the shadow of AIDS, and assorted counsellors are warning: with utmost care. In fact, despite nationwide AIDS education campaigns, only 38 per cent of sexually active teens across Canada say that they use a condom every time they have sex, according to a Maclean ’s/Decima poll. In her work for the AIDS committee, travelling across the province to raise public awareness about the disease, Parsons says that she finds most teens do use condoms, but not all the time. She also points out that Newfoundland has an Hiv-infection rate among teens that is four times the national average. “These kids still think that it is a gay men’s disease and they can’t get it,” she says.
Sitting one-third of the way up Conception Bay’s west coast, Bay
Roberts, a town of 5,000, is bordered by a narrow harbor on one side and barren, rocky hills on the other. Parsons, who was bom in St. John’s but moved to Bay Roberts eight years ago with her family, remembers teenage life there as dull, but generally happy. She babysat for relatives, sipped beer in the woods on weekends, went to dances. Then, when she was 19, Parsons contracted the HIV infection from a Bay Roberts-area man. He was her third sexual partner.
As she walks across the slushy pavement towards her old high school, there are no words of bittemess or anger—only a hint of sorrow. “I made my bed and I will sleep in it,” she says. “But I wish that I had known someone like me when I was in high school. I like to believe that if I had had the opportunity, that maybe things would have turned out differently for me.” With that, she opens the school’s front door and steps into the lobby.
Ascension Collegiate’s guidance counsellor, Mervin Clarke, says that education campaigns urging teens to use condoms have made an impact. When teens have sex, he says, “most of them take the correct precautions.” But he adds: “There are some who understand the dangers, and still don’t protect themselves. They think that they are immortal.”
It is that kind of attitude that Parsons is fighting. She leans forward in her chair in the school’s guidance office as she speaks. Of slender build, with a mane of thick black hair framing her thin, serious face, she hardly looks older than the two dozen 16and 17-year-olds who sit in a tight circle around her. They are Ascension’s peer counsellors—who receive special training to provide fellow students with advice on everything from study habits to personal relationships. And Parsons’ message has captured their attention. In fact, the dangers of AIDS are well known to them. In July, the Bay Roberts area was rocked by the report that Raymond Mercer, a 29-yearold man from nearby Upper Island Cove, was sentenced to 27 months in jail for infecting two young women with Hiv by having unprotected sex in defiance of a court order. In fact, health department officials have found 30 HIV-positive cases around Conception Bay, 23 of them young women. Dr. Catherine Donovan, the medical officer for Newfoundland’s Eastern Region, describes the incidence of infection in the area as “extraordinary.”
Many teens in Bay Roberts claim to know someone who has tested HIV-positive—and they blame Mercer for what has happened to their friends and acquaintances. Parsons, however, warns that Mercer is only part of the problem. “Some people are just so arrogant that they know all about the disease but think it doesn’t apply to them,” she declares. “It is almost like you have to come in and die in front of them before they will believe you.”
When the bell rings to change classes, the students are reluctant to leave. Tanya Craik, a 16-year-old from Bay Roberts, walks up to Parsons and embraces her. “You see her and you realize that if it can happen to her, it can happen to anybody,” says Craik, clutching her schoolbooks to her chest. “It is not something you want to think about—but you have to.”
Between classes, neat and tidy Ascension Collegiate teems with controlled mayhem. The hallways are a sea of permed and teased female hair and young men sporting Toronto Blue Jay shirts and jackets and high-topped running shoes. “Move to the right or you’ll get trampled,” Trudy Gosse, a 17-year-old Grade 12 student shouts above the din. About 900 students from Bay Roberts and surrounding settlements go to
38% OF SEXUALLY ACTIVE TEENS SAY THEY USE A CONDOM EVERY TIME THEY HAVE SEX; 22 PER CENT SAY THEY USE ONE "ALMOST EVERY TIME";
27 PER CENT SAY THEY USE CONDOMS "ONLY OCCASIONALLY";
13 PER CENT SAY THEY HAVE NEVER USED A CONDOM.
the school, which claims as its motto “Carpe Diem” (Seize the Day).
Romance blooms easily here, as the walls in the main-floor girl’s washroom attest. Until the surfaces are repainted, “Jody loves Ellis” and “Tammy Loves Cory.” For a while, it seems, Margaret and Christopher were an item, along with C. N. and P. N. One Ascension girl has scribbled: “Hope all your ups and downs are on a water bed.” The consensus in the Bay Roberts area is that many students begin having sex when they are between 14 and 17—a finding that is consistent with the Maclean ’s/Decima poll showing that half of 17-year-olds across Canada say they have had sex. “They do it in houses,” declares Keith Drover, 18, as he loiters with friends in an otherwise-empty hallway. “They do it in cars. They do it in trucks. They do it anywhere.” Still, Drover maintains that the HIV scare has changed sexual patterns. “People stay together longer,” he says.
Cindy Coombs, 18, says that condom use is also increasing. “Nowadays,” says Coombs, “I’d say most people are pretty careful when it comes to sex.” Not everyone is so sure. Susan Penney, 17, a cheerleader and peer counsellor, says that, while she and her boyfriend of a few months have not even talked about sex, “when a boy and girl have a one-night stand around here, nine out of 10 times the boy does not wear a condom.”
Age-old courting rituals continue. Behind Ascension's swimming pool, dozens of teens gather in small groups. Displays of macho maleness seem unaffected by the cold weather: a boy with a sparse moustache bites off the top of a Pepsi can and holds it up for approval. Best friends Lori Francis, 16, and SamieÜe Hynes, 15, seem unimpressed. “A lot of guys, sex is all they want,” says Francis. “And it doesn’t matter if you do it or you don’t. They’ll tell all the boys that you do anyway.”
Yet even the most popular boys have been affected by the HIV scare. The Ascension Astros—champions in their high-school hockey league last year—stand at the apex of the school’s loose social pyramid. Most have steady girlfriends. “That one-night-stand stuff, it ain’t no good for any of us,” explains David Mugford, a 17-year-old forward. And going steady has other benefits. Says another player: “Around here, there is about a 99.9-per-cent chance that if you go out with a girl for a night, you will not get laid.”
The Parsons’ house is a white, wooden bungalow. In some ways, it is as if Trudy never left the warm, comfortable home. Beatles posters still hang in her old room. Photographs of her adorn the walls throughout the house—particularly in the carpeted family room where she and her mother sit one January day, drinking coffee. Minnie Parsons is slim like her daughter, and wears a flannel shirt and green chino pants that make her look younger than her 45 years. But the weariness around her eyes reflects some of her pain.
Minnie’s smile fades as Trudy leaves to play cards in the kitchen. “I just fell apart,” she says, recalling the terrible day when Trudy told her that she had tested HIV positive. “Nothing mattered to me any more.” As Minnie saw it, Trudy had been issued a death sentence, and she felt partially responsible. “We were open with each other about sexual matters,” she explains. “But I didn’t know anything about AIDS or HIV and didn’t realize that it should have been part of her education.”
It is late afternoon, and the cigarette she just lit flares orange in the darkening room. Speaking in a quiet voice, Minnie says that she has not gotten over her sense of unfairness at what has happened to her daughter. “Trudy wasn’t a wild
girl,” she explains, adding, almost in a whisper, “she was just unlucky.”
Later, Trudy Parsons talks about her own self-doubts. “I really believed that I was a slut, even though I had had only three sex partners,” she says. “And I thought about suicide. I never went into the actual process, but I had it planned—how I would do it and where, and the method I would use.”
Shortly after supper, they begin arriving at a clearing in the woods on the Spaniard’s Bay back road. At its most crowded, a few dozen teens congregate there, smoking, drinking a few beers and generally trying to figure out what to do with their night. “It’s sort of boring,” says Jerome Greeley, 18. “But we have nowhere else to go.” A handful of students have chosen another hideaway, a decrepit wooden building in the middle of a frozen field on the outskirts of Bay Roberts. Eight males and a female crowd around a potbellied iron stove as Led Zeppelin and The Doors blare from a tape machine.
Although it is still early, one member of the group has already smoked enough hashish to reduce his eyes to narrow slits. But the acknowledged leader of the pack, a wiry blond-haired 18year-old, stands straight and sober. “Our bunch is sort of the outsiders around here,” he explains. But there are limits to his rebelliousness. He expresses his disapproval of some of his friends’ sexual habits. “Some of them don’t give a shit, they never wear a rubber,” he says. As for
himself—“I’ve always got my Trojan on.”
With all its latter-day complications, the dating game can still seem timeless, full of youthful hopes and innocence. Inside the Spaniard’s Bay Recreational Centre, dozens of teens move to the taped music while couples, many of them holding hands, circle the dance floor. On the room’s outskirts, Michael Badcock, a tall blond 16-yearold, sits embroiled in conversation with Maxine Drover, a 16-year-old brunette from Spaniard’s Bay. For the past few weeks, the couple’s onagain, off-again relationship has been off. But tonight, they talk earnestly about how much they missed each other. By the time the dance ends at 11:30, they decide to resume dating. “It seems
like we can never stay apart for long,” Badcock remarks cheerfully. The first thing he does after his mother drives him home is to phone Maxine. Then, until 1:30 a.m., the reunited couple speak happily of the night’s events—and of the future that awaits them.
Trudy Parsons seems tired but relieved as she stretches out in the passenger’s seat and Bay Roberts disappears in the distance behind her. Seeing her mother again has left her content, and she speaks, of all things, of her good fortune. Because of her own unfamiliarity with the virus, she thought that she had only a year to live when she first learned that she was HIV-positive— three years ago. And there has been another pleasant surprise: a six-month-old romantic relationship, even though she thought her dating days were over. “I have proven myself wrong on every count,” she says.
Still, even during her happy moments, despair lurks beneath the surface. Parsons acknowledges that sometimes her work seems futile—all the speeches in tiny outports to people who sometimes hardly seem to listen. “I'm the only person doing this. And my going to a high school once a year is not going to reinforce anything,” she says wearily. “You know you are going to see some of them again, and that it is going to be at the AIDS clinic in St. John’s—and it is going to be because they are HIV-positive.”
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