I am proud to be a Hamilton Heights High alumna. I know that most people who grow up in truly small towns —like I did in Cicero, Indiana, which had a population of 3,471 in 1990, compared to Turlock’s 43,621 the same year —feel a fondness and loyalty to their alma mater long after they graduate, but I have reason to celebrate my Husky affiliation.
On Thursday, my old school held a special convocation to commemorate the day 30 years ago when the community proved that education and acceptance can make a huge difference in the life of one child —and make history.
On Aug. 31, 1987, Ryan White became a student at Hamilton Heights High School. While most high school students aren’t excited about starting at a new school, White was happy that he had a place where he could sit in class and watch the clock just like every other teenager waiting for the bell to ring.
White’s former school, Western Middle School, didn’t want him there; not because he caused trouble, had bad grades or for any other reason that a student would normally be told not to return to a public school. White was kicked out of school for having AIDS.
White was born with the hereditary blood condition hemophilia. At the time, hemophilia was treated with frequent blood transfusions. Then in 1984, he was diagnosed with AIDS. The lack of proper screening of blood donors and the medical community's lack of knowledge about the HIV virus were made horribly apparent by his diagnosis, as well as the numerous other hemophiliacs that contracted AIDS from 1979 to 1984.
The diagnosis must have been a nightmare for White and his family, but soon he felt well enough to return to school. But Western Middle School was not prepared to have him back. In fact, the school refused to allow him to return. Despite assurances from the Centers for Disease Control and the Indiana State Health Department that White posed no risk to other students, the Russiaville, Indiana school refused to readmit him.
The White family’s battle with Western Middle School became international news, so when Hamilton Heights was willing to accept White as a student, the media maelstrom came to my small Central Indiana town.
Tony Cook, who served as the high school principal at the time White transferred to the district and is now an Indiana State Representative, preceded White’s first day of school with an education campaign. As a Hamilton Heights High student at the time, I remember those efforts clearly. I’m pretty sure that as a high school freshman, I knew more about the HIV virus and AIDS than most health care professionals did at the time.
The result of the school district’s educational campaign was a community who looked upon White as just another student — albeit one who had TV crews following him around and whose family spent time hanging with Hollywood celebrities like Bruce Willis, Demi Moore and Michael Jackson.
“We did something very special here in a young man’s life,” Cook said in a Kokomo Tribune story about Thursday’s event. “We gave him normalcy when he had none. Ryan told me his last few years were very content, and he was so pleased to have this experience.”
The Tribune also reported that Indiana Health Commissioner Jerome Adams, who has been confirmed to become the next U.S. Surgeon General, attended the commemoration ceremony. He told the crowd that attitude set Hamilton Heights apart from other school districts.
“Ryan White taught the world not just about HIV and AIDS, but he also taught the world about acceptance and understanding,” said Adams, according to the Tribune. “That’s the most important legacy he left for us, I think … Now, more than ever, it’s important that we embrace his message.”