For all the fears and unknowns harbored by high school seniors -- finding a job, getting into college, carving a path into adulthood -- mortality is typically low on the list. Invincibility is as much a part of teenhood as battling acne.
So the lesson in tenacity that Cindy M. Gibson taught her classmates at Brunswick High School in Frederick County was one they never bargained for. And their uplifting response, supported by their community, is an ideal worth clinging to.
Ms. Gibson, 18, died of AIDS last Saturday, two days before her school's graduation. She also had sickle cell anemia and contracted HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus that precedes AIDS, from a blood transfusion 10 years ago. She began experiencing AIDS symptoms in 1991 and after a year decided she could no longer live in the shadow of a brooding secret. With her parents' blessing, she revealed to her classmates her disease and her intent to fight as long as she could. She appeared on "Good Morning America," had write-ups from here to Japan and proved a persuasive speaker.
For all the threats that teen-agers face in the '90s, the ravages of AIDS are not typically among them. Teens who do contract HIV often don't suffer AIDS until adulthood. In Maryland since 1981, there have been only 35 known cases of teen-agers with AIDS. That compares with 182 cases for children younger than 13, who may have contracted the condition at birth, and 3,720 cases for thirtysomethings, the age group most affected.
When Cindy Gibson's older brother accepted her diploma Monday night, an ovation cascaded over the auditorium. Her parents, who cast their own profiles in courage during her final years, had earlier thanked the school and community for unwavering supporting for their daughter.
The value of life, of personal relationships, of the ability to pursue dreams in a free nation are concepts that take years to grasp. You could see an appreciation for those lessons on the lined faces of veterans saluting at D-Day commemorations. That same Monday, you could also see a bit of it in the fresh, scrubbed faces of graduates at Brunswick High. What Cindy Gibson imparted to them was a condensed course on life's gifts, and their positive reaction to her plight was surely the most enduring "A" grade they earned.