A Brief Summary of Ryan’s Life
The facts of Ryan’s life are presented in both the book and film, which will be presented to students. I will, however, give students a brief summary of the major events in his life before sharing either story with them. The possible questions which I have included might be used then, saved for the film or book, or used after all have been examined.
Ryan White was born on December 6, 1971. He was a hemophiliac since birth. He contracted AIDS through a transfusion, one of many, given at home by his mother. These transfusions were necessary to keep Ryan alive. When Ryan was just a teenager, a biopsy performed to diagnose a severe case of pneumonia revealed the presence of the AIDS virus in his system. The reactions of most people in Kokomo, Indiana reflected the stereotypes held by most people. The family was harassed and eventually a court injunction prevented Ryan from attending school. Led by his mother, Ryan struggled in a fight to gain admittance to school. National attention soon made life almost unbearable for the Whites. Questions students will be asked to answer include: “Could other kids really get AIDS from using the same water fountain as Ryan?” “Were the accusations that Ryan was a homosexual reasonable?” “Would it have made any difference if he had been?”
Stereotypes hounded the family and people generally showed little understanding of the disease or compassion for the family. These were difficult times for the whole family, including his sister, Andrea who often had to take a backseat to Ryan. Students will be asked if people were fair to the family. “If you were a reporter, how would you have covered the story?” “How would you have reacted if you were Ryan’s sister or brother?”
Finally, the judge lifted the injunction that had prevented Ryan from attending school. Throughout, Ryan continued to feel the effects of both of his diseases, which sometimes sent him to the hospital for treatment. Before Ryan could return to classes in Kokomo, his mother decided to move the family to Cicero, Indiana where they still experienced threats and harassment. However, in contrast to Kokomo, the Cicero school system had prepared the school population and community for Ryan’s arrival. Generally the transition in school was a peaceful and positive one.
Though in many ways he tried to remain a typical teenager, it proved to be impossible. Due to the media focus on Ryan, he had become a celebrity. His fame continued to grow, as he became a spokesperson and fundraiser for AIDS, traveling and speaking at various events. In the process, he became friendly with Michael Jackson, Elton John, John Mellencamp, Jessie Jackson, and other easily recognized celebrities.
Finally, Ryan’s body gave out under the pressure of continual physical and emotional pressure. He died on April 8, 1990. In August of the same year, Congress signed the Ryan White Care Act which established a system of services that has greatly improved the quality and availability of health care services to people living with and affected by HIV and AIDS, providing funds for a variety of health and social programs across the country.
I will introduce Ryan White to my students by presenting a brief summary of his life, similar to the one above. I will relate it to the material we have studied regarding AIDS and hemophilia. I will encourage discussion but will put more emphasis on pupil reactions and additional information as we read Ryan’s book and view the film.
I will present the book by reading it to the class. As with the story about Ruby Bridges, I will have extra copies available. They will be rotated among students so that some may follow each time I read. Though the book is written on a higher grade level and is too long for most students to read on their own, I will urge them to read sections on their own, especially the question and answer section at the end. They will also be encouraged to bring a copy home to share with their family.
The book itself covers a longer time period and gives us more details than the movie. It gives us a clear picture of Ryan’s relationships with friends and family. We are much more aware of his feelings. It also takes us into his teenage years after the family moves to Cicero. We gain a deeper understanding of his sister, learn more about other people in his family, especially his mother’s second husband, Steve Ford, we meet his friends, explore his relationship with the many celebrities he encounters, see him become a spokesperson in the fight against AIDS, learn of his feelings toward girls, watch as his body continues to battle against tremendous odds, and, finally, mourn as he succumbs to the years of physical and emotional pressures. It is made clear to us that he has “survived”. His endurance allowed him to live and share his story, a story that reaches far beyond his life.
Beginning shortly before Ryan contracted pneumonia and AIDS was diagnosed, the film lacks some of the breadth and depth found in the book. It is, however, certainly not lacking in intensity, an intensity which clearly conveys the physical and emotional assault, by much of the community and media, that Ryan and his family, especially his mother, endured. The same intensity is present as we follow Ryan and his mother as they attempt, with dogged determination, to have Ryan reinstated at school. We are also given a picture of some of the other supportive people in Ryan’s life: his grandparents, lawyer, nurse, doctor, and some of his friends. Containing many facts from the book, the film ends with Ryan’s arrival at his new school in Cicero where he is given a positive reception from most of the community and school population. Both had been given accurate information regarding Ryan’s condition. Students then will be asked to speculate regarding what probably was done in preparation for Ryan’s arrival. They will draw upon the facts they previously learned about AIDS, facts that are reinforced in the book and film.
Now that the film is over, students will compare and contrast the book and the film. Though they might prefer one to the other, my goal is to show that despite a difference in style and, to some extent, content, both achieve positive results.