Teaching students with HIV: What should you do when you care more about a student than he does?


The title of this post isn’t a rhetorical question. I mean it. What do you do?

Because me, I’m stuck, and it feels like the ground beneath me (and my student) is turning to quick sand fast.

I work with a young man I’ll call Zumani. Zumani is about 24, gets work a few times a month at the docks, and I’ve seen suburban doghouses nicer than the tiny shack he calls home. Zumani has a son he never sees because when Zumani’s girlfriend died the child went to the mother’s family, as is the Xhosa tradition. That family doesn’t like Zumani very much because he doesn’t support his son, And anyway, even though the child is still a toddler, Zumani doesn’t like to see him because he is ashamed to show up without toys or food.

Zumani is also a wonderful young man. He has a brilliant smile, a sharp wit, and big brown puppy dog eyes. His father died from a petrol bomb during the Apartheid struggle. Zumani was my first real friend in South Africa. He taught me that we all can be loved and accepted here, as long as we first commit to loving and acceptance.

Zumani is also HIV-positive. Here in South Africa, that’s something you don’t talk about. Its so bad that nobody dies of AIDS in South Africa, the country with the highest HIV infection rate in the world. Cause of death is listed as TB, and that’s just how it is.

Only myself, two social workers, and his mother knows Zumani’s status, which makes it tough. One of the social workers moved away, and the other has a full plate. His mother is struggling herself. When she came to me a few weeks ago, begging me to find a way to convince Zumani to go to the clinic, she didn’t look so great herself. Here, for so many, struggle is a way of life.

So I’ve been trying to help Zumani help himself, but its not going so well.  After taking him to two clinic visits (both of which he tried to bail on), today he was scheduled to get his new CD4 count results. These would determine whether or not its time to go on antiretrovirals. They would tell us whether or not Zumani now had AIDS.

I was to meet him at the clinic. He showed up a half hour late for his appointment. His eyes were bloodshot, his skin ashy. His clothes looked unwashed. He had failed to bring his ID or clinic card, so the clinic refused to help him. He blamed the trains. Then he blamed not having transport money.

“But what about the food and transport money I gave you two weeks ago?”

He fidgeted and made excuses. Then he admitted that his mother had bought groceries for the neighborhood and it was all gone.

“But you know I gave you that money so that you could be strong,” I said. “So that you could be strong to look for jobs and to keep going to the clinic.”

Zumani said that he was sorry, but I think he was more sorry that I was mad at him than for his actions. That’s how things are here: when you have money or food, you share it. I knew that, so in a way, its my fault… but still.

We talked a little. I couldn’t understand. Why wasn’t he taking this more seriously? I told him I respected how hard this must be for him– I respect it, but there is no way I can understand it. But what about in a year or two, when he’s dead from lack of treatment? When his mother loses it? When he creates an orphan in this country where orphans have about as much of a chance as does… well… an orphan in a slum?

And what about me? When I get the call that Zumani is dead, how do I process all the emotional output I’ve given over the past months? How do I not blame myself? What should you do when you care more about a student than he does?



Filed under Classroom Reflections

5 responses to “Teaching students with HIV: What should you do when you care more about a student than he does?

  1. Good question. I struggle with that everyday with my students, but not on a life-or-death level. Sometime you can’t give up, but you have to let go. You have to hold hope for them and let them know that you will never let go of that hope. But that may be all you can do at this point. But communicating love and hope is more than most people do for one another, so keep it up. It is never your fault. False guilt and blame will only make you less effective for others who need you, and there are so many who need someone to actively point them to a better life. Keep on with the good work.

    You seem so articulate and well-rounded in this post. Why so ridiculous and narrow in your post about home schooling? Most of the hope I still hold is because it was not taken from me by some bully in middle school.

  2. Mrs. Evans

    I would say that you and your friend have different priorities. In some cultures, honor and saving face are more important than one’s life.
    Your friend might be afraid that by seeking treatment he will be identified as an HIV patient- that someone may see him entering or leaving the clinic, or that their records are not secure.

    Even within the US, different people make different decisions about using medical treatments to extend one’s life while battling disease. Some individuals accept treatment because they want to live longer- others refuse treatment because they don’t want to waste what time they have. You know this man- is it possible that he sees more value in helping feed his neighbors than in prolonging his own life?

    • Mrs. Evans,

      Yes, I do think it is possible that he sees more value in helping feed his neighbors than in prolonging his life. Definitely. The question I have trouble answering is, should I be okay with this? And even if I’m not, am I overstepping important boundaries by trying to persuade him otherwise?

      – Jesse

      • mtgstuber

        I don’t think you’re overstepping important boundaries so much as you’re acting like a tourist (someone who understands that the natives do things differently, but can’t help but think there’s a better way).

        That is, your head understands (and even appreciates) the cultural difference, but you’re still invested in your own culture’s mores and morals.

        There isn’t anything wrong with that.
        It simply is.
        Our culture values longevity over a life lived well, and that’s hard to escape.

        I would encourage you to help your friend live his life well, because what you do have control over in this situation is your ability to contribute to his sorrow and regret, or to his joy.

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