By Clarissa Bezerra, Brasília, Brazil
As an educator and as a woman, I have had the privilege of having a very strong woman to look up to – my mother. Today, in my 39th birthday, after having spent most of my day by her side, I decided that it was time I wrote down a story she once told me about her life as a young and inexperienced teacher back in her hometown, a small and impoverished village by a river, called Cajari, in the heart of the state of Maranhão, northeastern region of Brazil. This was back in the early sixties, and my mom had just finished her studies, the then-called ‘Escola Normal’, which no longer exists, to become a teacher. Back then, it was the only choice a woman had to being someone’s wife and bearing children.
My grandmother Raimunda was my grandfather’s, Jerônimo, third wife. My mom was the first-born daughter of three siblings, but they had a whole bunch of other brothers and sisters from my grandpa’s first two unions. Having become an enthusiastic young teacher, my mom greatly contributed to the setting up of one of the first schools in her village, where she taught Portuguese, basic Math, and basic agricultural practices to students who were in their majority either as old as, or older than herself. She remembers the exhilarating feeling of standing in the front of the group in the very simple classroom. That was, she had always known, her true calling. She was a natural-born educator, taking after my grandma Dodoca, whom I will certainly write about in another post.
So there was my mom stood, in front of a group of students, all of whom village people, people who were barely literate, some of which she had herself taught how to read and write, and among them was Benedito. He was one of her many half-brothers, and he was older than her. She remembers him being very quiet and always attentive in class. On that day, however, he would speak up, and little did my mom know that she would remember that day for the rest of her life. She had been teaching an agricultural practices class that day, and she had been explaining how to plant a certain crop. During her explanation, though, she made a mistake about the sequence of a set of steps taken to prepare the soil for the crop. Benedito, experienced agriculturist as he had always been, instantly raised his hand, saying “You’re wrong. You can’t do that first. The seeds will die if you do.”
My mom, young and inexperienced as she was, invested in the authority that teachers once had tons of back in the day, could not take it. She felt she had been challenged by Benedito, considering that attitude very disrespectful. She remembers walking out of the classroom at once, headed towards the principal’s office. She told the principal what had happened, angrily pointing out that she would not go back in the classroom if Benedito were still in it. It was either her or him. The principal didn’t fret, and Benedito left school, never to return. Ever. My mom told me that story in sobs. She was about 18 at the time. She remembers the anger she felt inside when he spoke up to say she was wrong. “How dare he say that I, the teacher, am wrong!”, she thought. Yet she was. He knew better than her, and most likely anyone else in the region for that matter, how to work the land. He had worked by their father’s side in their farm all his life. He knew his craft.
My mother told me this story after she was diagnosed with cancer less than a year ago. She confessed that she had never forgotten it, and that she regrets her actions. She told me she blamed herself for depriving Benedito, a rugged, simple man and her own brother, from ever getting an education. He could barely write his own name. But if there was something he was good at was working the land. My mom tells me she has never had the opportunity of apologizing to him. Not too long after that, she would move to the state capital with her widowed mom and two siblings to make a new life for herself and her family.
She went on with her studies later in life, becoming a pedagogue against all odds. She already had me, and my father was never too keen on having her get an education as opposed to being an exemplary housewife. She challenged him, though. Much like Benedito had challenged her back then. She went on to become an extremely well prepared educational counselor, working in various public schools in Brasília, where she worked with underprivileged children and teenagers at risk. She was always open-minded and revolutionary, always fighting for the quality of the education delivered by the teachers she worked with, and always moved by the genuine belief in the young people who were her students. She was politically engaged during her years as an educator, which was frowned upon by my father.
She confessed to me that her energy and her acute sense of justice had come to her much as a result of the deep regret and utter shame she felt of behaving the way she did with Benedito on that day. She owed it to him to become the educator she did. I hear he is still alive and living in Maranhão. She is mustering up the courage to contact him and say she is sorry. But even if she doesn’t, just the fact that she shared this beautiful, moving story with me says so much about this moment in her life, in our lives as a family. I guess that more important than Benedito’s forgiveness is her own. And the ultimate acceptance of the fact that we all owe who we are today to every little action, feeling, and connection we have made along the way. There’s no good or bad, no right or wrong, there’s just who we are, and that’s what truly matters.