Talk to Me
Author & award-winning public speaker Scott Fried teaches us to speak “adolescent” when educating our youth about AIDS and life’s other topics
by Alina Oswald
Let’s face it. Nowadays one cannot talk about HIV/AIDS without bringing up the topic of youth and AIDS. And when it comes to talking to the youth about AIDS, well, let’s just say that opinions, no matter how well intended, vary widely. Some adults point at youth’s complacency regarding HIV, while some adolescents argue that they are not given enough credit when it comes to understanding the importance of AIDS prevention and education.
Considering both sides, the truth may lie in an intergenerational conversation, or lack thereof, for that matter. In other words, the best way to get our well-intended messages across, be that about life in general or AIDS in particular, is for adults to learn how to communicate with youth. And while this is not an easy task, there is hope. That’s where Scott Fried comes in to help both adults and adolescents truly communicate.
Diagnosed with HIV in 1987, at the age of twenty-four, Fried started talking to teenagers, sharing his HIV story, hoping that he would be remembered in their collective memory. But as he reached that goal, he has continued to teach adolescents, so that they would know what he didn’t know when he was their age.
Today, Scott Fried is the author of several books, and an award-winning international public speaker. He is also the annual guest speaker at the Office of President Clinton, in New York City, where he talks to new interns about HIV/AIDS.
I caught up with Fried as he was getting ready to travel across North America to talk to thousands of teenagers, their parents, and educators.
Alina Oswald: So, why is there a disconnect between adults and adolescents?
Scott Fried: Teenagers today are hungry for the truth, and it is the truth that they are not being told. If we want to get their attention, we can start by being more original. We can stop lying to them, because they know that [we are lying.]
What should adults say or not say?
For example, instead of saying “you can tell me anything,” [parents of teenagers should] say, “I want to be a person whom you can tell anything to.” That’s a very big difference. If I turn it around and make it about me, it makes me trustworthy. Then [teenagers] can trust me, and tell me anything.
You mentioned lies. What are some lies adults tell teenagers, purposely or not?
The most pernicious of all lies we tell teenagers is that time heals all wounds. It’s not true, because once their hearts are broken, [teenagers] don’t understand why it’s taking so long to heal.
truths we don’t often reveal or disclose. I [tell] them about how I got infected with HIV and when, how I survived….It qualifies me, in their presence, as trustworthy. If I could make these mistakes, and learn from them and share them, they can talk about the mistakes they are about to make or might have already made, and share and learn from them. So to get teenagers to listen to you, you got to tell them your truth. Hearing the truth from an adult whom they respect inspires them to want to make change in their own lives.
Third is listening for what else we’re not saying. So, when we talk to teenagers, we have to make sure that we are listening to how they are listening to us. Are we preachy? Are we being judgmental? Are we coming from a place of love or of fear?
Why is it so difficult, for most adults, to deal with adolescents?
Let me let you in on a few things. Any doctor, psychologist [or] teacher would tell you the same thing. The brain is not developed until you’re twenty-four or twenty-five. At fifteen or sixteen, the part of the brain that controls impulses, many decision-making processes, activities, especially reckless ones [teenagers] do, is not developed. And that’s why we see teenagers acting out in ways that adults won’t.
To be an adolescent is to be a contradiction. And to be a contradiction as a teenager means, on one hand, they don’t want you to know their deepest secrets; on the other hand, they wish there was someone who knew their secrets. So teenagers live in this paradox. It’s a delicious contradiction for me as a teacher, not so delicious for them.
Why is it so hard for teenagers to deal with the paradox of life?
Teenagers absorb the shock of life for the first time, being assaulted, haunted and hit with [heavy] emotions for the first time. They don’t know how to communicate from fear of being rejected, and [wonder if they can trust us.] One of the reasons many teenagers act out in reckless ways is [to test their parents’ unconditional love.] But trust needs to be learned. Unconditional love needs to be proven.
You also talk about God, bullying, self-harm, eating disorders. How are all these topics related to AIDS?
They are not. They are other topics I talk to teenagers about, because there’s more to a teenager’s life than comprehensive AIDS education. So, I would tell my [HIV] story to an auditorium of a thousand teenagers, and they would hear my story from their life’s experiences. A teenager who has bulimia will hear it from her perspective. A teenager whose brother is getting stoned every night after dinner is going to hear it from that perspective. So, it’s not just about HIV. It’s about the risks that we take in order to feel that we’re safe in the world or that we have a place in this world.
Why is it important to talk to teenagers about all these topics?
So they don’t get to feel that they’re carrying the burden of life’s demanding circumstances all by themselves. That’s why I’m there, to remind them that they don’t have to do this alone.
Do you have a favorite topic?
My favorite topic, which is the most controversial, is comprehensive sexual health education. Last night I was here in New York City, [speaking to a classroom full of teenagers]. When I said, how many in this room have had sex [and AIDS] education in school, all of them raised their hands. [But nobody raised their hands when I asked questions like] what does HIV stand for, how is it transmitted or how to use a condom correctly. So, comprehensive health education is not being taught in schools anymore, or not being taught correctly.
Why do you think that is?
Some parents would prefer to teach [their own children and pull them from health education classes]. I don’t have a problem with that, but who’s going to teach [the parents] how to teach [their children, especially when the children don’t want] to hear about sex from their parents…because young people today are getting infected [with HIV]. Just yesterday, I took a twenty-one year old man who had just tested positive, to my HIV doctor.
You also talk about HIV/AIDS in synagogues.
Synagogues and Jewish state schools hire me to speak from a Jewish perspective. It’s another way to connect with teenagers and adults, to bring in the things I was taught as a Jewish teenager, and the principles and lessons that we, as Jews, teach and live by, to support my message of living a healthy life, and bring it closer to home. [AIDS] is not talked about in the Jewish community. I’m pretty much the “AIDS guy” in the Jewish community.
You also talk about death. What effect does that have on teenagers who usually think that they are invincible?
There’s a misconception out there that teenagers think they are invincible. That’s not true. They know they’re not invincible, so well that they get reckless in the first place. Life hurts for them. Grandparents die. Their grades are not high enough. They give their virginity to some guy who ignores them the next day, in school or on-line. They don’t like what they see looking at themselves in the mirror….We say they are invincible. They know they are not. This creates a greater divide between us, and them. Which is why [they] need someone like me to come in and say, I get it. I get it that you know that your body can destruct, and that your spirit can break sometimes. Let me sit with you, and talk about how hard it is to be a teenager.
Truth is that both teenagers and adults need someone like Scott Fried. Through his speaking engagements, his books and blog, he passionately teaches us all about the truth, hoping that others would learn from it—the truth that it doesn’t take a life of promiscuity or drugs or recklessness to contract HIV; that all it takes is one time having unsafe sex. “If it happened to me, it can happen to anybody,” Scott Fried says. “Most of all,” he adds, “I need teenagers to know that condoms work. [So] please protect yourselves!”
Alina Oswald is a writer, photographer, and the author of Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS. Contact her at www.alinaoswald.com.