Vincent Chalk, teacher, AIDS patient and reluctant crusader, went back to work Monday.
He looked tan and fit, sharply dressed in shades of beige. His smile came easily and often. He hugged a lot of students. His eyes watered more than once.
But Chalk's return to Irvine's University High School following last week's appellate court decision was not entirely joyous. He was welcomed back as a missing loved one, one facing a death sentence.
He will work, he said, "as long as I can."
"It's just my intent to stay as healthy as possible, to have a positive mental attitude," he said.
To Work Part Time
The decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals allows Chalk, 43, to resume his classroom duties as Regional Occupational Program coordinator for deaf students at University High and Venado Middle School. He will do so part time, depending on how he feels. "All you can do is listen to your body," he said.
Despite his court victory, Chalk seemed uncomfortable talking publicly about his private struggle with acquired immune deficiency syndrome. At a news conference before school Monday, television cameras bore down on him as he attempted to explain how it felt to have a fatal disease, how it felt to work with students who care so much about him.
Chalk said he was happy to be back, that he felt fine, that he had slept OK Sunday night and that he enjoys working with deaf students, whom he has found to be funny, very open and unaffected by the usual temptations that beguile Southern California teen-agers.
He acknowledged that "one or two" parents were uneasy with his return. "We are working with those parents," he said. "I pose no threat. If they don't want to have contact with me, they have that choice."
But at school Monday, the only demonstrations were those of support, in the form of welcoming songs and banners, and homemade gifts.
Paula Wirth Morrow, whose daughter, Sunshine, is a student of Chalk's at Venado Middle School, said in a telephone interview, "I told my daughter, 'When you see Mr. Chalk, make sure that you go up and give him a big hug.' "
At the news conference, several of Chalk's students did just that. In sign language, they told him how happy they were to have him back. One handed him a plant with red blossoms. She'd grown it herself.
'Very Special' Teacher
"He's like a father to me," said student Monica Saldana, through an interpreter. "He's very special. I just can't explain it."
Most of the 100 or so students in the school's program for the hearing impaired have not seen Chalk since February, when he was hospitalized for Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, a common infection in AIDS patients.
Chalk disclosed his illness to his superiors at the Orange County Department of Education, which led to his reassignment to a departmental desk job. Chalk's subsequent legal actions culminated in last Wednesday's ruling, which made him the first AIDS patient to win an appellate court decision protecting his right to work.
With his legal battle behind him--the Education Department said it will not appeal--Chalk turned his attention to the delicate matter of facing his own mortality and sharing that with his students.
Several parents of Chalk's students said they already have begun discussing with their children what it could mean to grieve over their teacher's death.
Chalk, too, said he has thought extensively about the issue and has begun discussing with his principal the best ways to approach it.
"The county is concerned with how much kids are told," Chalk said. "About how much I tell them about me, the disease and how it is spread. They are concerned that too much is going to be said and that the kids are not ready for it."
But Chalk, an acknowledged homosexual, said it is difficult to put limits on such a discussion, especially when emotions concerning his return are so raw.
"This has been basically a forced separation," he said of the time away from his students. "It's like a child and a parent who have been separated. It's emotional . . . . They worry about me, my physical health. If, in the time that I have left, I can spend some time with them, that will make my peace of mind better."