Updated: May 3
I remember as an 18-year-old the whole of the drama school I attended being called to a meeting one cold autumn morning. It was the start of the 1980's, a world that was so different to the times we live in today. For me the eighties was a time of colour, exuberance and risk taking, and yet as I look back with a fond glance, it was also a time of innocence and naivety compared to today where information and experience is instantly available by the touch of a finger.
We all stood there in our tight fitting lycra, complete with leg warmers and head bands in eager anticipation of the message from the principal. He stood there as the room quietened and announced that he had just returned from America where it had been reported that there was a new ailment that had been discovered, one that was spreading through the gay community and killing people. He warned us of the dangers and told us how to protect ourselves from this spreading threat called GRID. We all sniggered and questioned what he must have been getting up to in America to know such things.
But it wasn't long before his prophecy manifested into reality. At the time, many of us felt his words were inappropriate and were embarrassed that he was offering such explicit advice. I for one was uncomfortable and questioned whether it was his role to impart such information. It was only much later when I look back with a somewhat wider eye, that I can see his action for what it was; forward thinking, caring and brave. Some of the young men in that room that day didn't listen to the advice, and sadly they are no longer with us today.
It all seemed to happen so quickly
The media was quick to pounce on the health scare labelling it the 'Gay Plague'. It even had its own name GRID (gay related immunodeficiency) due to the overwhelming number of cases being reported in the New York gay community.
Scare tactic adverts swept across the country warning us of the impending plague that threatened mankind, religious groups claimed it as a curse from God on gay people for their sinful ways. Fear gripped the nation, and it was under this cloud of delusion and misinformation believing it was a gay virus, that the rest of society would become vulnerable to this newly reported virus that had now received its official title- AIDS. (Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome)
From this evidence, risk groups were highlighted, of which gay men were placed in the highest band. But if it was gay men who were truly at risk, there was a problem. Who was going to teach them of the dangers for at the time there was a local government act called 'Clause 28’ which stated that any local authority:
"shall not intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality" or "promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship"
So where were these perceived 'high risk groups' going to get their advice from? The gay community took it upon itself to self educate, and some could uncomfortably argue that it was through this self empowerment of education that the gay community really embraced 'community' and began its journey to the vast network of influence it holds today.
Information can be misleading and dangerous when it is followed blindly without forethought and balance. But this is not the first time we have been swept along with misinformation and sadly it will not be the last- unless we change.
In the 1930's cigarettes were marketed as a way for women to keep slim.
In the 1950's thalidomide was prescribed to pregnant women to ease morning sickness only to find in later years it was directly responsible for the deformities found in newborns.
More recently the safety of the MMR vaccine was brought into question sparking fears and confusion and who knows where the unlicensed and under researched sales of the newly fashionable smoking inhalers that offer nicotine without the cancer risks will lead?
It can seem like a frightening world when the very images and guidance that we have become to trust are brought into question. But this is the world we live in and to this we must adapt.
The first World Aids Day was first observed in 1988 and was brought about through the World Health Organisation. It has become a global statement that few other campaigns can match. Since the identification of Aids in the eighties, we have travelled a great distance and recognised that Aids is a universal threat and not one targeted to any particular group, community or race. I spoke with a teenager recently who asked me 'What is Aids?' I realised that complacency cannot be allowed to prevail in the quest for a cure, we have lost too much and gone through so much pain that it can never be allowed to be this way again.
However, it will not be the campaigns of the future that will bring about the changes needed. It will be the groundwork from the young, encouraged to seek information and question the results with balance, and not driven into fear by the phobias and prejudices of society and its educators.
Over the years I have often seen teachers struggling uncomfortably when asked questions they don't have the answers to. We seem to have adopted an attitude where not knowing the answer to something is a shameful thing rather than being an opportunity for growth that can be shared with the questioner.
Then came along the teachers of brilliance. The ones I watched in awe as they took young people's issues without judgement and without embarrassment and turned the whole learning process around and returned the responsibility of learning back at the feet of the very youngsters' who were asking the questions. Through guidance and support and without hierarchy for me they turned teaching into an art form.
You see, I view PSHE as one of the most exciting and yet underutilised subjects in the whole of the curriculum today, with no off limits. It is a subject where maths, literacy, history and in fact any subject can be utilised to learn about personal and social health. There are only a few subjects that can encourage young people to take ownership of their own self development and truly change the experience of someone's life. So, to all those teachers that have bravely taken this subject by the scruff of the neck and moulded it into a path of guidance, I genuinely raise my hat. Let's face it, many PSHE teachers inherited the role without any specific training- if the subject you teach even barely relates to PSHE then the job's yours!
So as days of awareness come and go, I advocate that we encourage and support young people to do their own research, to balance information, and with guidance encourage them to draw their own conclusions; for quite often the best educators are the young themselves to which we as teachers can barely lift a candle.
In order for us to not to fall victim to the mistakes of the past where misinformation has been followed blindly, we must learn to develop young people as self educators where we as adults just act as guidance facilitators and not infallible beacons of light.
Young people will find any information they want, we no longer have control over that. But if we start to trust that with the lightest of touches, young people are able to achieve their own conclusions and balanced view, then we truly start to develop a healthy learning process for the future where the responsibility of the educator, becomes yourself.