How One Town Coped With AIDS : A Community’s Response to an Infected Child’s Family : How One Town Coped With AIDS--Community Responds Without Panic

The Washington Post

Lying in the August-hot sand of Rehoboth Beach, John Grant thought about the news from Arcadia, Fla.: the three boys exposed to the AIDS virus, the bomb threats, the anger, the burned-out house. He wondered if the fire would strike Denton next.

In a few weeks a pale little boy was scheduled to enter kindergarten in Denton, a tiny Eastern Shore town that comes under Grant’s jurisdiction as Caroline County health officer. The boy would be carrying a small pouch attached to a tube through which the drug AZT flowed straight into his heart, keeping him alive, but even without the tube Grant knew that in Denton, where everyone knows everyone else and much of everyone else’s business, the boy’s disease would not remain a secret long.

Months of Rumors

For months the rumors had been circulating, and to make it more complicated, the boy’s mother refused to wrap herself and her child in what Grant thought could be protective secrecy. Soon, the rumors would harden into direct questions and the town would know that one of the children learning to write his name at Denton Elementary had tested positive for exposure to AIDS.


Earlier in the summer, the mother had spoken to Grant, a man not given to easy optimism, especially about AIDS. Like many health officers, he has visited San Francisco and seen the devastation there, and subscribes to the more pessimistic forecasts of the havoc the disease will wreak.

“She said, ‘Maybe it’ll go really well . . .’ ” he remembers, his voice mimicking her tremulous hope. He shakes his head now as he did then. He didn’t expect it to go really well.

Anxiety, but No Panic

But, somehow, it did. There have been no pickets, no bomb threats, no fires--plenty of anxiety and questions, but no panic, no flight from the school. Only one child was withdrawn. A small group of people, including a health officer, a principal, a newspaper editor and a young mother with a sick child, led Denton through a process that could have ripped the town apart. Ask people around Denton how things are going now, and they cross their fingers--so far, so good, and they can’t quite believe it.


She had come to Denton several years before because a single mother with three children and could afford to buy a house there. She found hers on a block where almost every yard has a swing set and neighbors watch out for stray children. Hers is a cozy place with a playroom, a large kitchen, photographs of her children on shelves and tables, a few well-worn spy novels tucked away and a Big Wheel parked outside. Above the living room door hangs a simple sign with one word: HOME .

While many people--perhaps most people--in Denton have figured out who the single mother with three kids is, she wants to remain anonymous, and newspapers and television stations have respected that wish. Her name has never been revealed.

“I love Denton,” she says. “There are some really good people. I got a letter in the mail the other day from somebody who’d read an article in the paper and told me how sad they felt about it and wished they could do something. I’ve had a note left on my door saying that they thought the way I did everything was really good and they were really happy for me that everything worked out. You get little things where people will try to show you what they feel.”

In Maryland, AIDS is not a reportable disease; parents don’t have to tell school officials that their children have been exposed to the virus and officials say some clearly do not. But the mother decided to talk, first to the woman who ran her son’s day-care center and later to public school officials.


“If I had kept my mouth shut, nobody in this town would have known anything about it,” she says. “But the easiest thing is not always the best thing. Even though the chances of him spreading it are very minimal--I figured if they knew, they could take the precautions.”

The health department held an information meeting for neighbors and parents at the day-care center. “There were some who were really concerned,” she says. “I got angry at one of them who said something like, ‘We all support you, but. . . . ' And then there were all the ‘What if this happens?’ What if the moon should fall from the sky? I’ve heard a million ‘what ifs.’ I said, ‘Look, you can either accept this and treat it with dignity, or you can set an example for all the future victims to hide and not come forward and you won’t be taking any procedures against it, and is that what you want?’ ”

As she recalls those words, her voice rises, gaining momentum and passion but still quavering. All of this, the indignation and the insistence, is new to her.

“I’m a very private person,” she says. “I don’t go out all the time. I just stay home with my kids--I mean, that’s just my role in life. It’s like, this is my family, this is my fortress. My situation should be told, people should learn from it. But this is our home--it’s different. Our situation is one thing, my life is another.”


But even though she sometimes finds it hard to draw the line between her public responsibility and her private life, she won’t stay quiet.

“I don’t think it’s right in this country to feel you have to lie.”

Denton, population just under 2,000, is the kind of place where residents assure you they never lock their houses, don’t even know where to find the key to the front door. They talk about “the Western Shore” as though it is another country and describe existence in the place they call “Baltimore City” as “life in the fast lane.” They are proud of their schools and their teams, which win championships such a small system could hardly be expected to snag, and even the cheerleaders and fans, who win awards for school spirit and sportsmanship.

Across from the courthouse and near the Masonic Hall, a stone marks the spot where Franklin Roosevelt spoke 49 years ago. At the Corner Restaurant, down the block from Korner Kloz, regulars eat apple dumplings and discuss the fire that recently destroyed McConnell’s Fun Foods, a favorite local stop.


“It’s a real laid-back life style here,” says Bonnie Blades, a local real estate agent. “I was driving through Baltimore City and I thought, ‘Thank God I don’t live here!’ ”

Changes in Town

But even in Denton, things change.

A new bypass diverts beach traffic around the town. A new mall nearby threatens the small, quiet shops that line Market Street. Ground has just been broken for the third major company to move into the two-year-old Denton industrial park. And in what may be the most remarked-upon change, both McDonald’s and Pizza Hut recently made their first ventures into Caroline County.


But for the people carrying the still-novel little bags filled with French fries, the arrival of the fast-food chains has only pointed out how long it has taken the inevitable to happen.

Some things, however, came faster than anyone expected. AIDS was one of them.

“One person said, ‘I came here to get away from all that,’ ” says Caroline County Times-Record Editor Richard Polk, echoing a general sense of surprise that something thought of as the disease of the big cities--New York, San Francisco--has landed here.

‘Knew It Was Coming’


But state officials say they know of 12 children exposed to AIDS attending Maryland public schools, and on the Eastern Shore some people had already begun to prepare. “We knew it was coming,” says Caroline County Superintendent of Schools William Ecker. Last year, nine Maryland counties established a standard procedure for school districts faced with admitting a child who had been exposed to AIDS. “The policy was a real lifesaver,” Ecker says.

A committee composed of the mother, the child’s doctor and members of Ecker’s, Grant’s and the school superintendent’s staffs evaluated the case, and Grant was left to make a recommendation on whether it was in the child’s best interest to attend school and whether he presented any danger. The decision was up to Ecker.

“I could have said, ‘Well, I don’t believe you, doctor, and I don’t believe what the medical profession is saying, and I’m not putting the kid in school,’ ” Ecker says. “That’s happened across the country, and when they didn’t want the kids in school, the schools went to court and the court said, ‘You have to put them in.’ I had some pressure--not a whole lot, but little suggestions that that’s what I should have done, and then we could have blamed the courts.”

But Ecker didn’t do that, and Denton Elementary Principal Charles Carey was notified that the 5-year-old boy infected with the AIDS virus would be attending his school.


She has found that fear moves in many directions. Other parents were afraid of her child; town officials were afraid of trouble; she was afraid of strangers, of neighbors, of something flying through her window late at night. At one point, she was even afraid of her own little boy.

Despite the fact that everyone else in the family had tested negative, she worried for her other children, one a preschooler, the other in elementary school.

“I had them taking baths together. Automatically, that stopped--for about a week, until I said, ‘What are you doing?’

“The kids had been really close. We had been hugging and kissing and smooching and runny-nosing and dirty-diapering together for a long time, and it’s ridiculous to think that something he’s had for four years is going to go over to the others. When I started getting the realities of it down, I wasn’t so much afraid.”


But Grant remembers a frightened woman sitting in his office. “We sort of had to talk her down out of her concerns,” he says. “I think it was all part of her ‘Why me?’ Not only is this little kid deathly ill, but everyone is going to reject him.”

It took a while to calm her. “I mistook him several times when I shouldn’t have,” she says of Grant. “He said something like, ‘Well, your alternatives are you can either leave town or. . . ' I said, ‘I’m not going to leave town!’ I got the idea from him that I was going to get a Molotov cocktail in my window. I think he was only trying to tell me what might possibly happen and what my possible options were.

“But I wasn’t about to move. I can’t afford to move, and I like it here. I thought, ‘Well, I’m going to have to fight it sooner or later.’ ”

Grant remembers that she said, “Denton is going to show this country how to deal with AIDS.”


“She had tremendous courage,” he says. “I guess there’s no other word for it when you do something you don’t need to that you know will be difficult.”

After 12 years as principal at Denton Elementary, Charles Carey knows the place, the parents, the kids, and he sometimes sees the world as one large classroom to keep in order.

“There’s a certain aura a teacher has,” he says. “You remember the teacher who was a huge, hulking guy, but within two days the class was a zoo? And the small guy who had perfect discipline? I always had good discipline.”

It has been a useful skill over the last four months. When the school year began, Denton Elementary started to educate the entire school staff about blood-borne infectious diseases, and Carey started to get angry phone calls from parents demanding explanations. It was clear they had a good idea of what was going on, and a few days into the semester, he asked the PTA to schedule a meeting for Sept. 10.


Grant saw the meeting as a potential disaster. Carey was equally uneasy. He found a local doctor with a child in kindergarten who would speak in favor of the decision. Ever the disciplinarian, he set a time limit for the meeting and insisted that anyone interested in speaking sign up before the meeting started. Each speaker had only three minutes at the microphone.

“At the beginning of the meeting it was very obvious to parents I was nervous, and I told them I was nervous,” Carey says. “I said it was because I was afraid it would get out of hand. I also told them--God, I can’t believe I said this, it’s so cornball--'We have well-behaved children in Denton School, and you are the parents of those well-behaved children, and I expect you to be well-behaved.’ ”

For the first time, officials verified the rumor that a child who had been exposed to the virus was among the 688 students at Denton Elementary. Grant explained why the board had decided the child should be admitted and emphasized that the type of tube the boy wore had been used by diabetic children for years and is almost impossible to pull out. The school, Carey said, would give teachers rubber gloves to wear when taking care of a bleeding child--any bleeding child, since no one knows if there are other students exposed to the virus.

Then parents and teachers began to talk. “It became much more emotional--I think because your heart started going out to this little boy and the mother,” says PTA President Carol Seward. “His teacher got up there and broke down as she was speaking. There was another lady, I guess she didn’t actually break down, but the way she expressed herself was very emotional. She made us question if this was our child--how would we feel if our child was being more or less discriminated against.”


Grant and Carey had advised the mother not to attend the meeting. But for her it was like attending her own trial; she couldn’t stay away. “I heard a lot of the negatives and I heard a lot of pro. I heard more pro than I heard negative, but still I heard the negative. I know they’re there.

“When I left there I felt better. It wasn’t so much that these people standing up for us knew us at all. I can see a situation where if I were a prominent member of society, everybody would jump on my bandwagon because they knew me, or they knew my family for century upon century. That wasn’t the case here. These people were standing up for what was right, and that’s good.”

After the meeting, she called the newspaper. The resulting headline read: “A mother’s thank-you to a loving community.”

Not everyone is satisfied. Some parents think the school should have talked to them before the term began. Others hope their children and the sick boy will be in different classrooms next year.


But wishing was not enough for Olin Kelly, who withdrew his kindergartner from the school. He has been distressed by the way the situation was handled, and even more distressed by the way it has been discussed, as if the concerns he and, he says, other parents feel no longer exist.

In Denton, they’re beginning to wonder when all the attention will stop. Every couple of weeks another reporter or camera crew shows up, and some residents fear that even the positive publicity could, in the end, hurt Denton, as if they are tempting fate with their pride. But the mother thinks it’s important to keep talking.

“People love to read exciting news,” she says, “and I can see where a house getting burned and people getting treated badly is big news. But that isn’t the big news. The big news is the people in this town and other towns all over the country where it is being accepted.”