Sometimes we are more important in someone else's life than we can imagine.
I thought I was doing my part. After all, I have always been a dedicated teacher and have always cared about the learning process of my students. I normally spare no efforts in keeping them interested in the subject. But, for reasons beyond my control, the students in that particular class, in one of Rio’s many favelas, were not engaging, no matter how much dedication I would put into it.
I did not think there was much I could do about my student’s emotional struggles, psychological traumas or their poverty related problems. They were many and I was just the teacher. Besides, they were almost adults. What could I do best for my students besides planning creative classes and treating them with respect, not seeing them as failures and giving them some useful advice?
But as I was failing to generate an interest, I decided to launch a challenge. At the beginning of each class, a phrase or question related to the lesson of the day would be placed on the board and at the end of the lesson the student who gave the right answer would win the Sonho de Valsa (Waltz Dream).
Sonho de Valsa is a Brazilian chocolate truffle wrapped in pink paper that we usually give to someone to show affection. In my country, we grow up watching those television commercials that tell us that the receiving of Waltz Dream is a demonstration of deserved love of special people. I confess I had doubts whether it was the Waltz Dream or the instinct for competition that acted as the real incentive for their behaviour change, but the truth is that suddenly the students had become very interested and participative; even Judson.
Judson was a 19 year old student, very troublesome, feared by classmates and ignored by teachers. He was an aggressive bully and had, let's say, a great difficulty in dealing with authority figures. He also had obvious learning difficulties. People did not want him around. He was extremely annoying, noisy, inconvenient and hated. The other teachers could not stand him and wished he would disappear; except me. The problem of school dropout in Brazil is great and I did not want to have one student less, even if this student was Judson.
One day, before going to work I remembered that the sweets had finished and, in a hurry, I bought what I found at the nearest store. A big bag with 100 refrigerator magnets with bible quotes. Even though I was not a religious person, I thought it would be a good substitute, because the words seemed to be comforting and encouraging.
The result was even more surprising. The students engaged in intellectual debates over the magnets. It was a simple and fun incentive that created a positive classroom environment with a friendly and relaxed atmosphere. Even Judson participated, and he loved it. That mood changed his behaviour.
I could not believe that something so simple could cause this kind of change. The other teachers noticed and became more tolerant towards him. It was comforting to me. Social issues were swallowing up those youngsters like quicksand in the desert and also swallowing up some of my hopes for the future of the nation.
It's been many years, but I'll never forget. It's all so fresh in my mind. Looks like it was yesterday...
I could not understand the reason why the students stopped participating in the debate over the refrigerator magnets. I insisted on asking but they refused to explain. Until one of them told me secretly that whenever Judson could not answer the question, he forced the winner to deliver the magnet to him at the gate of the college. And that was already happening for some time. I questioned why anyone did not react or tell me what was going on. It was very upsetting when I found out that the reason was fear.
I was the youngest teacher, energetic, demanding, full of new ideas and full of all the courage that the innocence of youth can give. I was not afraid to interact with the students like the other teachers were. I was not afraid to talk about anything. Until then, I had no means of knowing the impact of my behaviour on my students lives. I did not know what place I occupied in their lives. I just did not know.
I called Judson for a serious talk and forbade him to continue stealing his classmates' magnets. He laughed. I think he laughed at my innocence because everyone feared him. He was part of the drug trade. If you know Rio, you would know what I'm talking about. No one would venture to tell him what he should do or should not do. But I did, because I was the teacher. Because I could.
After that, the other teachers’ wish came true. Judson was gone for weeks. I was sad and worried. I felt bad because, maybe instead of talking, I should have heard his reasons. I took this as a lesson and talked to the other teachers. We decided to contact the school coordinator who initiated a search. The students also collaborated, because he had not only disappeared from the school but also from the area where he lived.
After three weeks, the coordinator approached the police. Days later, two police officers came to school to talk to teachers. They needed one of us to go with them to Judson's mother's house to report his murder. He was known locally and the cops already knew what had happen. The mother would have to go and recognize the mortal remains. Most specifically, she had to recognize what was left of what the animals had eaten, and then get things done according to legal procedures. Yes, Judson was cut into pieces and fed to hungry animals.
The cops had already helped a lot with the school’s search, and more than that they could not do. The teachers and the coordinator picked me. They said I was his dearest teacher. I was surprised. I had no idea that I was someone's dearest teacher, never mind Judson’s! Actually, I did not believe it. I thought the coordinator was giving me something she should had done herself. I couldn’t go because I did not have time. I had to teach. So, the coordinator and a city clerk accompanied the policemen.
The next day, there was a buzz in the teachers' room when I entered. I overheard phrases about a refrigerator and about how impressing the experience of that discovery had been. They described a very dirty, dark, hot and untidy hovel. Judson did not live with his mother. He lived nearby, in a very small place with walls completely covered with graffiti and posters of death scenes and terrifying phrases.
The only clean and organized thing in that place was the white refrigerator full of magnets with bible phrases. According to the coordinator, the refrigerator was the only thing she could look at in that house and feel some peace. The refrigerator was a relief in that house of horror.
Today, I do no longer believe Judson disappeared because of our conversation, but I wish I had the opportunity to have met him years before, to be able to give him the Sonho de Valsa. But everything was too late ... We are not heroes and the magnets and Sonhos de Valsa are not going to save all those in need but there are many other types of magnets and Sonhos de Valsa that we can give, and there are many people to whom they will be not given too late.