When Paige Rawl was in sixth grade, she told her best friend that she was HIV-positive. Paige knew she was born with the disease, but also knew she was smart, active, and healthy. Revealing her HIV status to her best friend didn’t feel like a big deal. What she didn’t know was how her peers would react once they found out.
Within weeks of telling her friend, the whole school knew about Paige’s status. Instead of responding with compassion or even curiosity, Paige became the target of bullies. Other students nicknamed her “PAIDS” and wrote “No AIDS at this school” on her locker. Even teachers were insensitive — the guidance counselor advised Paige to deny being HIV-positive, while her soccer coach joked that Paige could now easily score goals because players on other teams would be so afraid to touch her.
Not only were Paige’s classmates cruel, they were misinformed and afraid. Even though more than a million people in the US are currently living with HIV, there are still misconceptions and rumors about the disease and those affected by it. HIV—a virus which attacks part of human’s immune systems—can’t be transferred through air, water, or sweat, or by sharing a glass, shaking hands, or hugging. Paige was born with the disease and will probably have to be treated for it for her entire life, but she doesn’t pose a risk to those around her, and with proper treatment is just as capable of leading a healthy, happy, and normal life.
But after enduring years of bullying, “normal” wasn’t what Paige wanted anymore: she wanted to make a difference. At 14 years old, Paige was granted special permission to become an HIV/AIDS educator—the youngest person ever to be certified by the American Red Cross. “The best way I found to cope was by speaking out,” Paige said, “I have HIV, but I’m not defined by it.”
Since she began speaking about HIV/AIDS awareness and education (even to her new classmates — after Paige changed schools, she led an assembly on her status for her peers), Paige has continued to fight bullying and discrimination, and has been recognized by organizations across the country for her efforts.
This week, at only 19 years old, Paige has already published her first memoir, positive. Her powerful story of growing up HIV-positive will both inform and inspire, and hopefully increase awareness and empathy among teens.
Aside from her speaking engagements and national recognition, Paige leads a fairly normal life, filled with friends, dating, and school She now attends Ball State University, where she studies Molecular Biology, and someday hopes to become an HIV/AIDS researcher. “I’ve learned not to be ashamed of the fact that I have HIV,” she told US News: Health. “I realized that I am a normal teenager — just because someone has HIV doesn’t make them any less of a person.”