Highlander - Touching Hearts

Highlander Staff

MARBLE FALLS - A couple of weeks ago a Marble Falls woman bared her soul to the Texas State Board of Education in an act of courage that has her friends and co-workers applauding.

Her grit also has given strangers a glimpse into a world that could just as well be theirs or yours or mine.

You would never guess, meeting her, that Mimi Perry, is a teacher in the homemaking department at Marble Falls High School, has suffered through a nightmare that will never go away.

You also would never have learned anything about her or her burden unless you were a family member or a very good friend, except for the action taken by Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Moses, who last year had turned down a $450,000 annual federal grant to fund a program that teaches AIDs prevention in the public school system.

Moses said his objection to that program and the money was that he didn't want to see federal control of Texas' sex education procedures.

Mimi was incensed. She has watched her son Jim and grandson Jason die of AIDS; her daughter in-law Gerri is still struggling with the deadly disease.

Because of her intimate knowledge of the disease, she had asked to speak to the State Board of Education on Jan. 12 in the hope of having this decision reversed. Mimi believes education is the only answer to halting the spread of AIDs.

She had requested to be heard before the board and knew she'd only have a few moments to tell her story to get the board to reconsider its action. So she wrote her remarks down.

"I wanted them to see my son. I sat at my typewriter and it just came to me. I don't know where it came from and I had to read it after I got through to learn what I'd said."

What Mimi said was so powerful and so important that she spoke to the board on Jan. 12, even though on Jan. 11, Moses had reversed his decision and agreed that Texas should receive the annual federal money. She spoke from her notes and when she was finished, there was a deafening silence as her words, and the implications sank in.

She acknowledges that abstinence is the one sure way of stopping AIDs, but realistically she knows young people are not going to abstain from sex or life.

"Young people think they are immortal, "she said. But she has learned the hard way preaching abstinence doesn't work.

Jim was the type of son every mother hopes her son will be. "He was intelligent, a good athlete, and popular. He was salutatorian of his class, won district in the UIL Science competition, made All District in football and basketball and won district in the mile and two-mile runs. He also qualified for regional in tennis and high jump.

The girl he chose to be his wife was an honor student, drum major of the band, flag corps captain and a participant in many school activities. In short, they were good kids.

"Unfortunately, there was one fatal flaw in this picture. Each had numerous sexual partners before they met. Back then (in the middle 1980s), the main concern was prevention of pregnancy. AlDs was a gay man's disease and there was no education about it," Mimi said.

She had tried to instill the concept of abstinence, and knows Gerri's parents did the same. But, it didn't work. She was not to learn how disastrous this was going to be until six years ago.

The year 1989 started off as a good one for Mimi. She had her life in order, was teaching, a job she loved best in the world and had four children she was proud of and was expecting a new grandbaby.

There were no clouds on her horizon and she was pretty sure the rest of her life would be a smooth sail.

But that was not to be. By December of 1989, disaster had struck, her family was devastated and there were probably many days Mimi got through only because she knew she had to.

By November of 1994 she had lost a son and a grandson to AIDS and a daughter to cancer.

"I have had the heartache of burying two of my children and one grandson. I have to accept my daughter's death as God's will; she died of stomach cancer. Jim and Jason's deaths did not have to happen. They died of AIDs."

Her son and daughter-in-law, Jim and Gerri, and the couple's three-month-old baby, Jason, were under a death sentence. The baby had become ill and while he was in the hospital, the doctors discovered he had one of the AIDs markers, pneumocystis pneumonia. If the baby was ill with HIV that meant one or both parents also had HIV they learned both had AIDs and although they tried to find out how they got it, they were unsuccessful.

Mimi said, "Neither of them used IV drugs, had a homosexual experience, or a blood transfusion, but somehow they were infected."

Baby Jason died in December of 1991, Mimi's daughter, Lori, the mother of four children, died soon after Jason, in February of 1992. Mimi's son, Jim, died in November of 1994. Gerri, Jim's wife is still battling the disease.

The help and understanding of the people who have become more than family to her, her coworkers, have allowed Mimi to carry on with her duties at school and assist her family through the past six years.

Now she is available to speak to groups about AIDs - "I know more about AIDs than I ever wanted to know," - and as painful as it is, she also is able to show some filmed videos taken of her grandson and her son and daughter-in-law, The films, "Jason, The Way We Live Today" and "Angels Watch Over Me" are powerful "and if one life is saved because of them, I'll think it's been worth it."

After the family was diagnosed, Mimi "kept quiet because of the stigma. I was embarrassed and couldn't talk about it. But Jim and Gerri told their friends and they accepted it."

Finally, Mimi told her principal because she felt he had a right to know. When Jason died and the word got out, Mimi no longer cared about the stigma. "I thought if Jim and Gerri could do the videos that I could handle it too."

When she finally told the people she works with she found not only acceptance, but support as well and always when she needed it most. Teachers and co-workers helped with lesson plans, typing, giving and grading tests for her. And they let Mimi know in many ways she was special to them and they loved her.

Mimi used to think teaching was her only profession, but these days, after what she has seen and experienced, she knows that educating teenagers and young adults about AIDs is a bigger and more important job.

Her goal in life now is trying to prevent the needless suffering AIDs causes which is brought home so poignantly in the two videos Jim and Gerri agreed to make to prevent another family from going through the hell they went through.

Going public and letting everyone know her deepest feelings is not something Mimi is used to nor comfortable with. "Somedays it's like walking down Main Street with no clothes on," she concludes.

© Copyright 2004, Rites of Passage, All Rights Reserved