An Epidemic of Apathy

Local activists were hoping people would flock to see the AIDS Memorial Quilt. They didn't.

Apparently the message didn't register in some quarters. "Quilt? What quilt?" asks Flanagan High Principal Sharon Shaulis two weeks after the quilt had already packed and left. "World AIDS Day? Is that coming up?"

Flanagan was one of three high schools that, according to Weissberg, had organized field trips to the quilt (the others: Coral Springs and Western), but Shaulis says she doesn't know anything about it. It's possible she wasn't told, she says. Did she even know what quilt we were talking about? "Vaguely. I do know there's a quilt somewhere."

Over at Hollywood's McArthur High, 17-year-old Fallon Crayton says she never heard a word about the quilt or World AIDS Day from any teacher or counselor. If it hadn't been for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Broward County, which organized several after-school trips, the whole event would have passed the 11th grader by.

And that would have been a shame, because Crayton is at risk whether she knows it or not. According to the Broward County Health Department, the segment of the population with the fastest-growing incidence of new HIV infections is the segment aged 13 to 19. And, although the number of AIDS deaths has been declining since the advent of protease-inhibitor "cocktail" treatments, the disease remains the leading cause of death among Broward residents between the ages of 25 and 44.

Says April Palumbo, who organized Crayton's field trip under the auspices of the Boys and Girls Clubs, "Kids today, they're so used to facts being thrown at them from books, they don't really see this [disease] in personal terms. They don't think this could happen to me, my aunt, my brother, my father," she says.

Indeed, the sight of the quilt shook Fallon Crayton to the depths of her soul. "It was like it came all of a sudden," she recalls, struggling for words to describe the head-rush of emotion she felt at the sight of an entire epidemic's worth of misery inscribed, stitch by grieving stitch, into 58,000 square feet of quilted fabric. "I'd never really thought about all the family members, all the little kids.... Somebody had put a pair of shoes on their quilt. Somebody else put musical notes. Somebody else wrote a poem for their partner...."

In defense of Broward County teachers, Weissberg points out that they "are under a lot of pressure to get a lot of things done." Consider the burden a single field trip places on an already overworked high-school teacher, according to Weissberg: "They have to fill out a TDA [temporary duty assignment] form, arrange for a substitute teacher, get permission from every parent, make arrangements..."

"... for the buses, get permission from the principals, yeah yeah," finishes Pat Callahan in a near-perfect replication of Weissberg's argument and tone. Callahan doesn't need the sheet music to sing this tune. She learned it by heart when she volunteered for the World AIDS Day education committee in 1994. "I was just tearing my hair out trying to get some cooperation [from schools]," she recalls. "I finally had to quit. For my own sanity."

In Chicago 6000 schoolchildren were bused in to see the quilt, which Jones says is not an unusually large number. "I've been visiting school districts all around the country, and almost everywhere I see long lines of yellow buses, I see students coming and staying for a long time, I see discussion groups, I see kids writing essays...."

Everywhere except in Broward. "I have a challenge for the school board," Jones says. "I challenge them to let me come down there and put a section of the quilt in every high school in the county next year. They can reserve it right now. All they have to do is call me.

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