The conversation was about vaginal fluids, semen, homosexuality, condoms, toilet seats and breast milk. The conversationalists ranged in age from 14 to 16.
"Using a condom is very effective, but . . ."
"They can break."
A couple of decades ago, frank talk on sex would invariably bring about a fit of giggles among teen-agers. A decade ago such discussions were infused with bravado and smugness. But now, in the age of AIDS, this teen-age conversation in a classroom at the Oakwood School in North Hollywood concerned basic science--and survival.
"Nobody can get it from casual contact."
"Like a kiss?"
"Not even from a toilet seat."
Even though these teen-agers tossed off this kind of talk matter-of-factly, it was not casual conversation. They have moved beyond just learning and talking about the causes of AIDS. Now they want to spread the word. They are making a video.
"When you hear something from an adult, sometimes it really just passes over your head," said Malakhi Simmons, 16, who was operating the camera that was focused on the four students in one scene.
The story line of the short video is about a group of teen-agers getting together to make a brief informational video about AIDS. Bits of their conversation will be mixed with scenes from the video they are discussing. For example, when the students are talking about prophylactics, the on-screen scene will be of a teen-ager shyly buying a condom.
"You listen and hear things from an adult," Simmons continued, "but you don't pay attention the way you do when someone your own age is talking to you. It's important that kids tell these things to kids. We know the way they think."
The video is being made for a competition sponsored by the Public Television Outreach Alliance, an organization producing the upcoming "America in the Age of AIDS" public TV series.
The local winners of the contest, which is restricted to high school students, will have their video shown on KCET television. The national winners will travel to Florida this summer to be honored at the Public Broadcasting Service's annual program fair.
Making a video seems to come naturally to the students involved in the project, many of whom have parents who work in the film and television industries. Simmons' father is a cinematographer; James Pitts' father produces and directs videos. Pitts, 15, went with his father to San Francisco when his father taped a public service announcement for an AIDS group.
"It was for a group that asked people to help take care of the pets of people who have AIDS," said Pitts, who was so excited about the project that he occasionally jumped out of his chair and mimed how sections of the video would look. But he talked quietly when he spoke about the trip to San Francisco, where he first met several people with AIDS. "I think meeting them made me more caring."
Oakwood has not had any students with AIDS, but through their parents, several of these young video makers have met people who have the disease. "There is this friend of my dad's that I have known for a long time," said Nichole Gendler, 14. "I saw him at Christmas and it was really sad. He was fragile, he was really skinny and he can't walk well. He can hardly talk."
"Sometimes I complain, sometimes I don't get the things I want," said Sophie Tokar, 14. "I complain to my parents and stuff. But then I see someone who has a disease with no cure and I feel really lucky. I think about what it would be like to have a disease that you know will kill you. I can't believe how lucky I am."
All of the students stated emphatically that the fact that most AIDS victims are gay is of no consequence to them.
Oakwood, which has been in North Hollywood for more than 30 years, draws most of its students from upper-middle and upper-class families, according to Principal Fred Mednick. But AIDS knows no economic boundaries and the private school has had programs to educate its students about the disease. Math teacher Ken Gould, who is overseeing the project, and two other instructors taught a class called "AIDS: A Positive Response" last year as an elective for students.
The class toured the offices of AIDS Project-Los Angeles and some of the students did volunteer work there. (Oakwood students are required to do community service projects while attending the school). Several speakers visited the class, including one man who had AIDS.
"I think going into the class the students felt that they could do nothing about the disease," said Gould, 26. "All they could do was protect themselves. But I think the class made the disease real for them, it made it human."
In the term following the class, Gould asked for volunteers to participate in the annual AIDS Walkathon. About 100 students and faculty members joined the event, in which they raised almost $10,000.
The response to the video project was far more modest--about 12 students signed up to make videos individually or in groups--and most of them say they did it because in addition to believing in their cause, they thought it would be fun to write and produce their own videos. But even amid the usual giggles over line flubs and bursts of energy when someone got a new idea about how to do a scene, the taping was colored just a bit by the fact that barring a medical breakthrough, their generation will be the next to have to deal with AIDS.
"Right now it's mostly adults who have this disease," said Tokar. "But we are coming towards this, now. We have to tell kids to be careful."