In a frank discussion, Truckee resident talks about AIDS
How do you talk with a large group of 13 and 14-year-old eighth graders about AIDS so they won’t roll their eyes, giggle and smirk as if they are hearing yet another lecture?
When 29-year-old Scott Watters asked students in one eighth-grade class if they knew someone who was HIV positive or had died of AIDS, no one raised their hand.
“Hi, I’m Scott Watters, and I’m HIV positive,” he said, shaking one student’s hand. Every student in the room had Scott’s attention. No rolling eyes, no giggling, no smirking.
For many students, Watters was the first person they had ever been in the same room with who was HIV positive.
Watters visited every eighth grade science class this week as part of their new HIV education supplement which is part of the Community Challenge Grant Youth Workshop, a Placer County pregnancy prevention program. A small portion of the Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt was on display for the school during the week as well.
Watters’ talk really hit home for a lot of the students. He explained to them how when we was at Tahoe-Truckee High School, he was one of the top downhill skiers and class president with a bright future ahead of him. He went to San Francisco State University after graduating high school to study theater, and then moved to Los Angeles to pursue an acting career.
“I felt there was nothing in life that could stop me,” he told the students.
And then he told them what did stop him, and was very honest with sharing the uncomfortable truth.
“I was also sexually active during this time,” said Watters. “I used a condom almost all of the time, but once or twice. The once or twice gave me HIV.”
Watters, who tested negative the first two times, found out he was HIV positive at 8:15 a.m. on Dec. 6, 1996. Two things went through his mind immediately after the nurse said, “Scott, you’re HIV positive.”
“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I’m going to die,’ and then ‘How am I going to tell my mom,'” he told one class. Telling his mother was the hardest part of all.
“My mom has a belief that parents shouldn’t have to bury their kids. But, you know, my mom will probably have to bury me.”
Watters explained how he hit rock-bottom, depressed, feeling worthless and ashamed.
“I didn’t know how to make it through or if I wanted to make it through,” he told them. “It affected every part of my life.”
At 26, he moved back to Truckee to live with his mom. He worked a few jobs locally and came across some discrimination, but found a great deal of support from the community. He started talking, mostly at area schools two and a half years ago, sharing his story and giving facts about HIV and AIDS.
“(Speaking) has been one of the biggest things to help me through this. I can’t be in denial when I’m telling my story,” said Watters.
The student response to Watters’ talks was one of genuine emotion, concern and sensitivity. One student asked, “Are you scared to get close to people?”
“The kids were awesome. I think they respond really well to this,” said Watters. “(Eighth grade) is my favorite age group because they are so honest. They’re not as jaded. I try not to talk at them, but to speak with them.”
Watters also hoped to instill the fear of AIDS into their heads by presenting the raw statistics. He told students that their age group – ages 13 to 19 – is the fastest growing group to be infected with HIV.
“I try to teach the kids how the choices we make today can effect the rest of our lives,” he said.
Viewing the Names Project Aids Quilt in the school library also helped students realize the seriousness of the deadly virus. The quilt is a visual representation of how many people have died from AIDS.
As the largest ongoing community arts project in the world, the quilt is made up of more than 42,000 colorful panels that represent the life of a person lost to AIDS. The panels are 3 feet by 6 feet, the size of a human grave.
TTHS students from the Youth Educator Program came to the middle school to share information and history of the quilt. The facts were startling:
– Since that first display, the Names Project has continued to display the quilt in places as far reaching as the epidemic itself. To date, more than 1,000 displays have been held – from large displays of the entire quilt in Washington D.C., to smaller exhibits in schools, houses of worship, corporate offices, hospitals shopping malls, prisons, museums, theaters, and convention centers.
– More than 12.5 million people have visited the quilt or a portion of a quilt.
– There are more than 42,000 panels in the quilt and more than 80,000 names.
– The quilt in its entirety covers 25 football fields, 48.7 miles of fabric (if all 3 by 6 inch panels were laid end to end) and weighs 53 tons.
– The names on the quilt represent 21 percent of all AIDS deaths.
“The quilt really brings home the message of compassion and support for people who are living with AIDS and the magnitude of the disease,” said TTUSD Prevention Specialist Laurie Martin.
“It really helps tie in a complete picture of the disease.”
The portion of the quilt on display at the school has panels remembering Arthur Ashe and one remembering an infant who died of the disease.
The quilt was also viewed by parents who attended a parent workshop Monday night, entitled, “Are You an Askable Parent?” The workshop focused on opening the lines of communication between parents and their children on a variety of subjects, including sex. Watters shared his story with the parents as well.
According to Watters, the opening the lines of communication can help prevent the spread of HIV.
“This is a disease that doesn’t have to happen to people. I think it can be prevented through dialogue,” he said. He also told the students that they needed to start talking about sex and other uncomfortable issues with their parents and their friends.
The students and school staff helped show their support by contributing more than $200 as of Monday night to Watters fund-raising for the AIDS Ride ’99, which he and friend Lisa Coronado-Smith are training for. It is a 560-mile bike ride from San Francisco to Los Angeles to raise money for AIDS research and prevention.
Each biker agrees to raise $2,500, which goes to people living with the disease and AIDS prevention programs.
Both Watters and Coronado-Smith have quite a bit of fund-raising to go in the short time left before the six-day ride, which begins June 6.
Watters said he was truly touched when one eighth-grader reached into his pocket and put a five dollar bill into an AIDS Ride fund-raising jar.
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