A community tries to be caring

MARK is the kind of student whom commencement speakers extol as ``the promise of the future'' or ``America's greatest asset.'' Last month he graduated from Case Junior High School in Swansea, Mass., where he had been on the honor roll, won first prize at the science fair two years running, and was a Little League all-star.

But what makes Mark unique is this: He is the first child with AIDS who has been allowed to attend public school.

Swansea is no liberal enclave, no East Coast version of Berkeley, Calif. Its politicians promise to save money, not to do good. The mostly French-Canadian and Portuguese population would be insulted if you told them they had a social conscience.

What they care about, most of all, is their own flesh and blood. ``I'd lie down in the road and let a truck run over me before I'd allow anything to happen to my child,'' said one anguished mother, at the packed town meeting that was called last September to discuss Mark's presence in the public school.

And yet, as the panic generated by AIDS -- a panic intensified by the possibility that it might strike one's own children -- prompted one school district after another to keep AIDS children out of school, Swansea reacted differently.

Liberal Carmel, Calif., and fundamentalist Kokomo, Ind., said ``no.'' Swansea said ``yes.'' More than that, the town reminded Mark that he was one of its own.

There are those who, purporting to speak on behalf of AIDS children, urge that they be kept home, free from the derision of their classmates. But particularly for an adolescent, school is the center of life. Sending him home is killing with kindness.

``Why should Mark stay in school?'' a TV interviewer asked some of his classmates. ``Because, if it was me,'' one student responded, ``I'd hope that my friends would treat me the same way.'' That's altruism, not thoughtless cruelty, from a 13-year-old.

When the news of Mark's illness first broke, the concern was intense. It was the only thing anyone in Swansea talked about, at the clambakes and the corner stores. How could it be otherwise? Swansea thought of AIDS as San Francisco's and New York's problem; AIDS was the ``gay plague,'' not something that got into the blood products that hemophiliacs use. ``Why do we have to be in the fishbowl?'' one parent lamented.

The easy course would have been to bar Mark from school. That had already happened in Kokomo, and many Swansea parents initially favored that approach. ``The rights of the majority must prevail,'' they argued. And they asked the doctors, often angrily: ``What risk are you making our children assume?''

What persuaded the town to change its mind was the firm stand of a tough-minded superintendent, John McCarthy. The superintendent called the Centers for Disease Control and the state's health authority and was told the risk was infinitesimal that an eighth-grader, particularly one as conscientious as Mark, might transmit AIDS through casual contact. Mr. McCarthy made his decision and stuck to it, persuading the school board and the community to go along.

It didn't hurt that McCarthy has been a teacher and administrator in Swansea for three decades, that during that time he taught or coached four or five members of the town's school board. McCarthy commands the respect of the community.

Over and over, parents said, ``I know Jack McCarthy would never do anything to hurt our kids.''

And the doctors helped a lot, too. In their meetings with teachers and parents, there was not a lot of talk about probabilities or knowable risk -- just information delivered in plain English, by professionals so believable you'd swear they had been sent by central casting.

Swansea isn't heaven on earth. It's an ordinary if uncommonly attractive town, populated with mill workers and farmers whose views on most social issues aren't particularly enlightened.

But in one extraordinary moment, this town opted to take care of one of its own, drawing its boundary lines to keep Mark in -- then conscripting a brigade of citizens to cook meals and raise $10,000 to help pay for Mark's care. What Swansea did has made Mark feel better about himself. And to hear the townspeople tell it, they feel happier about themselves, too. ``Isn't it something!'' they kept repeating, pleased with how things have turned out. Swansea can teach the rest of the country a thing or two.

David L. Kirp is a professor of law and public policy at the University of California, Berkeley.

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