Natalie went to Bunker Hill Elementary School in the District's Brookland neighborhood yesterday to tell 40 attentive sixth graders about AIDS.
Some of the pupils at the Northeast school near Catholic University leaned forward in their chairs, intently listening to the very thin woman wearing a blue dress. Others sat back in their seats; no one squirmed with embarrassment or wiggled restlessly.
Natalie, a puppet that represents a 25-year-old woman who got AIDS from her intravenous drug-using husband, was plain-spoken about a disease that many adults are hesitant to discuss and about which most are misinformed.
"Raymond has the virus and I got AIDS from having sex with him," Natalie told her embarrassed 15-year-old puppet friend Joanne. ". . . If you want to learn about AIDS, you have to talk about sex."
And she did. She also talked about how to reduce the risk of getting acquired immune deficiency syndrome and about the need to be considerate of those with the disease.
It was the first time the national, 10-year-old puppet troupe, Kids on the Block, which is based in Columbia, had presented AIDS as a subject for schoolchildren.
In the past, the puppets have acted out short plays in schools on sexual abuse, drug addiction, divorce, disabled children, aging and cultural differences.
Barbara Aiello, the founder and president of the troupe, said she surveyed 200 children aged 9 to 12 a year ago about AIDS and found that few knew the facts of the disease.
"Kids were talking about AIDS, they knew about AIDS, but they were repeating myths and misconceptions," she said. "It was then that we knew we had to do a show on AIDS."
When Aiello, who was the voice of Natalie, called for questions after the skit, a dozen hands shot into the air. The questions were as open as the character's discussion.
Checharna Wilson, 10, asked Natalie, "When you first found out, were you scared?"
"Yes, and I was so mad at Raymond and I was so sick. I had diarrhea for a whole month. Gross!" Natalie said. "I went to the doctor for a blood test and when he told me, I was upset. I was afraid of how people would treat me."
Later, Checharna said she had not learned anything new about AIDS because she and other pupils had heard a police detective and the school nurse talk about it at school programs.
"And I had an uncle who died of AIDS," she said. "He told me about AIDS. I was scared but I asked him to talk about it and he did. He seemed to understand my position, that I needed answers to questions, and he wasn't offended."
In the skit, Joanne had problems saying the word "condom." One of the few humorous lines in the play was her efforts to overcome her embarrassment.
"Con, con, con, condom," Joanne said, as the young audience giggled.
Later one boy brought up the subject again. "Exactly what is a condom?" he asked Natalie.
"It is something you use when you have sex," Natalie replied. "It will help to keep you from getting AIDS." She then explained how a condom works.
After the skit, Aiello said the use of the word "condom" is not allowed for children younger than eighth grade in the suburban schools but it had been approved for the sixth graders by the D.C. school system.
"We sent them a script to read and there were no objections," she said. "We do not alter our script for anyone, but we do abide by the age restrictions."
At the close of the program, school Principal Carolyn Preston reviewed for pupils the material presented by the puppets.
Her school was honored last year by the U.S. Department of Education as one of the best elementary schools in the country, because of its high test scores and parental involvement.
"We will keep this information in our thoughts," she told the class. "And you will not get AIDS. And to make sure you don't have to use a condom, you will not have sex."
Then she reiterated. "When you are in junior high school, you will . . . . " and she looked to the children to finish her sentence.
"Not have sex," they chorused back.