Paige Rawl has just finished her first year at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, has just released her memoir, Positive, and, when I call her, is recovering from the heart surgery she underwent just several days ago. “For an ablation,” Rawl says, clarifying the cardiovascular term for correcting a high, abnormal heart rate. She giggles as she says she’s not allowed to lift anything over 10 pounds for two weeks. I can only think that most people, myself included, would be inclined to self-pitying seclusion after surgery rather than good-natured interviewing. But that’s not how this ebullient young activist, educator and lawmaking force rolls. At the age of 20, Rawl has already faced improbable odds, repeatedly confronted the wicked side of humanity and risen as a beam of hope.
Rawl contracted HIV perinatally. Since the age of 3, daily doses of medication under the ever watchful eye of her mother and visits to the Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis were the norm. During a dentist appointment, Rawl noticed that a file designated her HIV status as positive. She questioned her mother, who confirmed the truth. That didn’t alter Rawl’s inherent optimism and self-perception. Some kids had asthma, some kids had ADD; she was HIV-positive. No big deal. In 2007, when Rawl confided that she was positive to her best friend, this once-trusted classmate immediately turned on her, spreading the news of Rawl’s status.
In the seventh grade, Rawl’s life went from academic enthusiasm and social ease to a grade-point slump and the laden status of pariah. After reading what Rawl survived and surmounted, Hester Prynne’s life is a stroll on a sunny, Majorcan beach. Name-calling is one thing, but harassment, verbal abuse and a baffling lack of support from school staff in regard to bullying is another level of cruelty entirely. A school counselor encouraged Rawl to deny she had HIV, and a soccer coach suggested that Rawl’s HIV status be part of the team’s defense strategy.Without any viable sense of a solution from her school’s administration, Rawl eventually withdrew from the junior high school she once adored. She has every reason today to be bitter, introverted and weakened by anger, but she isn’t. “It still surprises me to this day how cruel kids can be,” Rawl says. “It just amazes me, and I sit back and I think, ‘how did I get through that and not want to give up sooner?’ It took me until my freshman year of high school before I was ready to give up. And so I still get very surprised when I think about everything I’ve gone through to get where I am today.”
Unsurprisingly, the means by which Rawl was bullied was social media, as is still true for many other young people. Violent threats and encouragement to disappear were more prevalent than “likes” and friend requests. “I feel like the bullies are able to hide behind that computer screen or that phone screen,” Rawl says. “So they say things and they think, ‘We’re at home, it’s not going to matter, once we go to school we can’t get in trouble.’ ” With naysayers lurking beneath the veil of any given cluster of 140 characters, Rawl concedes that complete avoidance is impossible.“I think it’s a matter of trying to separate who can follow you and can be friends with you at the same time. At times, it’s hard to block everybody out.” She doesn’t discount the benefits, though, saying that she often uses social media as a platform to offer statistics or provide details about events in which she is involved.
When it comes to delivering a message, Rawl often goes the old-fashioned route of public speaking. Apart from anti-bullying campaigning and HIV and AIDS education, one of her main goals is reducing and eventually eradicating the stigma associated with HIV-positive people. “[W]hen I get up and introduce myself and once I say that I’m born HIV-positive, I still hear those gasps in the audience to this day,” says Rawl. “We’ve come such a long way in society, but I feel like we still have such a long way to go. When I get up there and I talk to them, I want to stress that I’m a normal teenager. I don’t let this define who I am, and so hopefully that reduces the stigma. I always try to make sure they see that I don’t look like another person who is HIV-positive. We all look completely different, and the disease doesn’t discriminate. People with HIV are normal people.”
Optimistic and inspiring though she is, Rawl has had her share of dark days. She came very close to ending her life after the pressure of unfiltered hatred and ignorance from her contemporaries proved unrelenting. Though her survival wasn’t easy, she hopes her ability to flourish is encouraging. “When I was going through such a hard time and I was ready to give up, I had to sit back and not let the people who were making my life hard win,” says Rawl. “If I gave up, it was letting them win, letting them see that what they did really did destroy me. And at times, yeah, it did. But I had to look deep down at all the people who love me, all the people who are there for me instead of thinking of all the people that were against me and all the people trying to make my life miserable.” This signature resilience was again illustrated when Rawl testified before the Indiana Senate for House Bill 1423 in April 2013. Ten days later, the bill became an anti-bullying law.
There’s still a wide, turbulent sea to navigate when it comes to anti-bullying efforts and altering the stigma associated with HIV, but Rawl doesn’t give the impression of someone who is content to sit back and survey a mission accomplished. She’s more of a what-can-I-do-next sort of gal.
“It’s such an overwhelming thing to think I’ve been through all of this but at the same time I’ve overcome all of it,” she says. “And when I get out and speak, I want other kids to be able to think the same thing, to look back on everything they’ve been through and think, ‘Wow, even though I went through all of this, I can still overcome it.’ ”Gordon West is a writer and illustrator living in Brooklyn. He is at work on a teen novel and a picture book.