Ultimately, the case--like so much else--boils down to a question:
"How could anyone do such a thing?"
On its surface, the story in last Saturday's Post was an old one: An unfeeling guy lies about his circumstances to have sex with a woman who might otherwise say "no." The woman is devastated to learn that her beloved is not what he claimed to be.
It would be just another sad, sordid drama of the sort we've all heard, except that the "circumstance" the man lied about wasn't a hidden marriage, bleak financial situation or closeted sexual orientation.
It was HIV.
Now she's sick. And he's going to jail.
Similar cases are increasingly common, but I couldn't shake this one. The man, Louis C. Saunders, was sentenced to 40 months to 10 years in prison for having unprotected sex with the woman while aware of his HIV status. D.C. Superior Court Judge Harold L. Cushenberry Jr. said he sent a message of deterrence by giving Saunders the maximum sentence for aggravated assault, to which the defendant had pleaded guilty.
The sentence was apt, yet doesn't answer the question, "How could he?" Saunders's victim--who wasn't identified due to the newspaper's policy not to name victims of sex crimes--is too ill to work. At 34, she can't adequately care for her three teenage children.
"People don't know what I'm going through," she said. Which raises another question:
How many of us ever do? If humans truly understood each others' pain, if we felt others' anguish as sharply as our own, the world would be transformed.
Sexism, racism, homophobia would all but evaporate. Men like Saunders would be less likely to put women at risk if they suffered their agony and their children's devastation. Those of us who read or hear about strangers' troubles would be far less likely to blame, judge or dismiss them. We'd all work passionately to obliterate poverty and war--because we couldn't stand them.
And I might never have heard of Freddy Ramirez, a 9-year-old student with cerebral palsy. Let's pretend that D.C. school employees felt what Freddy endured each time he dragged himself across the floor of his elementary school's restroom because his wheelchair couldn't get inside.
Would Freddy have had to file a lawsuit or wait 18 months to obtain his legal right to an accessible restroom? A federal judge ordered his school to provide one by early November. A story in Wednesday's Post suggested school officials "don't know" why the problem took so long to be addressed.
Because nobody felt it, that's why. Most of us say we're sensitive to others' pain and we are--to a point. But the dart of emotion we experience in response to strangers' anguish is manageable. Really feeling it would require more from us, take us places we're unwilling to go. And raise more uncomfortable questions:
What if women could truly feel what it's like being a man--if we could see the world and ourselves through male eyes, feel the powerful hormones, chemicals and emotions that makes a man a man? And what if fathers, brothers, husbands and sons could experience--not just hear about or guess at--all that motivates and defines us as women?
Would we be kinder to each other? More tolerant?
Maybe. As it is, the bravest people open themselves to feeling as much as they can bear of other folks' stuff. And they help pry open the rest of us.
I read about Rebecca Churchman the same day I learned about Saunders--and can't forget her, either. A Prince George's County middle school teacher, Churchman is teaching a new class that helps well-heeled students empathize with their poorer classmates. At Churchman's school, 41 percent of families' incomes fall below federal poverty guidelines.
Students who take "Hunger 101" at five Prince George's schools are taught malnutrition's side effects--lightheadedness, stomach pangs, weakness--and their effect on classmates. To taste how life feels for those who struggle to get food, students engage in role playing as bankers, social workers, grocers and, most importantly, needy people with small budgets and burgeoning expenses.
Kids who are rejected for the food stamps or emergency loans that would feed their families are hurt, even when it's make-believe. They begin to understand--no, to feel--things they otherwise might never have felt.
In a world in which "sensitivity training" is ridiculed and cynicism is the attitude-du-jour, some imaginative Prince George's educators are daring to teach kids to care.
That's a lesson District school officials should have learned before Freddy Ramirez had to sue, and that Louis Saunders may never understand. If treating everyone's problems more like our own makes a better world, I have one last question:
"Why don't we?"