“Do you know what I want for Christmas?” Ruan asked Mary. She was a little hesitant. On one occasion, Ruan asked for a cell phone for his birthday present. The other children just laughed when they heard this. They reminded him that presents are not something we demand from others. Now, he was talking about Christmas gifts. She thought that it was going to be another absurd request. He did not wait for her response. He just came out with it and said, “I want to learn how to read and write before Christmas.” It was definitely unexpected.
About a year ago, Ruan came up to us and told us that he wanted to learn how to read and write. He is thirteen years old and completely illiterate. He has been to the public school but never learned the basics. He is not the only one. In fact, most of our children and teens are illiterate. Only a handful of them are able to write their own names. However, none of them ever displayed any interest in learning or education in general. All of them have had negative experiences in the school system. After hearing stories about the precarious schools in the poor neighborhoods, we can understand their aversion. Recently we have noticed a change in their attitude towards learning. They are asking us to do more educational activities with them. The amazing thing is that the initiative comes from them and not us. We can’t really pinpoint one single incident that awakened this growing intellectual curiosity. I believe there are a series of events which contributed to this and they share one common denominator, which is relationship. The children have discovered the value of education within the context of human relationship. Prior to this, they have associated school and learning as something institutional and distant. They did not see the relevance of their knowledge in real life. Now, they want to learn because it makes sense to them within the context of a friendship.
I believe Bruno has a major part to play in this but his participation is unintentional. He loves to learn English and is self-motivated learner. Everyday he waits for us with a list of words that he wants us to translate into English. He is always coming up with new phrases and he wants to know the meaning of certain words and how to use them. The children noticed that Bruno has always tons of things to talk about with us. They wanted to be part of this but they did not know how. Some would sit next to us and just listen quietly. They noticed that the subject was about a movie or a book and it always connected to something educational. Ruan was the first one to ask our help. He wanted to read the books like Bruno and have access to the things that we talked about. Then Felipe started asking questions about the English language. Alex approached us and wanted to know if we have books about animals. One by one they begin to open up to us about their specific interest. They saw that their interest could be a means of building a stronger relationship with us. In a way, they are right. Their interests give a glimpse of the things that they like and care about. When they share it with us, they are giving an access into their souls.
Then the letters started coming. Ruan was the first one to receive one. It was from a church member in Florida. When I read the letter to him for the first time, he hardly said anything. He was impressed that someone would take the time to write to him. Then a few months later, we received some more letters for the other children and teens. The reaction was always the same. They listened quietly and all of them smiled when I told them that they were written by people from a far away land. After a while, nothing was ever said of these letters in our presence. However, unbeknownst to us, these letters were topic of conversations in the evenings when the children and teens were by themselves. The letters have created such an impact that some of the children began ask us why they did not receive any letters. They want to correspond with someone in the churches in Florida. I told them that letters are like a conversation. We don’t have to wait for someone else to initiate the conversation. They can do it as well.
In the past month, Ruan has been practicing writing with Mary. He even decided to forego a trip to the beach with the rest of the children because he did not want to miss his lessons with Mary. A couple of days ago, he asked if we would help him write the letter. Mary wrote down what he dictated;
“Dear…I really liked the letter you sent me and especially the Christmas card from last year. I thank you for praying for me. I want to tell you about my family…..I, Ruan, have three sisters but my favorite sister is four months old.….I want to make a Christmas card for you and hopefully I can send it to you with this letter….By the way, have you ever seen a alligator, if you can, please send me a picture of one…Please continue to pray for me and my family. By the way, my mother’s name is Andrea…”
Every single word written here flowed out of his heart without any guidance from us. This is the first letter Ruan has ever dictated in his life. I am sure that it won’t be the last. Maybe he might attempt to write the next one by himself.
“What do you do in your free time?”
The children have been become increasingly curious about our lives. They want to know what we do when we are not with them. We told them that we don’t have a TV at home. They were shocked. It is something unimaginable for them. We told them that we like to read and having a TV takes our away time away from books. Bruno, trying to find something common with us, started talking about books that he wanted to read. He threw out names of some classical literature. The others got a little jealous because they did not know names of any books. Some of them have never had any access to books in their lives. To rectify this, I decided to take a Roald Dahl book to the streets recently. He was one of my favorite authors when I was a young boy. I have acquired several of his books in Portuguese with the hope that some day I can give it to our children to read. For now, I just wanted to share some of my favorite books with them. I showed the book to Ruan and told him that if he learns how to read well I will give him a book like this one. His face lit up. He immediately grabbed the book out of my hand and showed it to the other children and said, “Look what Uncle Stephen bought for me to read one day.” The others looked on and I could see that they were a little envious. I did not say anything. Hopefully their jealousy will give them the desire to read as well. Bruno asked about the author. I told him that he was the one who wrote Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. This led into a long conversation about other books of this author that were made into movies. The children were familiar with the movies but they never knew that they were based on a book.
My most memorable time in school was when we had lessons with our favorite teacher. It did not matter what the lesson was. It was almost irrelevant. If the teacher was a loving person who truly cared about us, whatever subject he or she taught was interesting. Education is fun and exciting when it helps to bring us closer to one we love. I had forgotten about this essential and crucial aspect of education. Education on its own is dull and uninteresting. However, if it opens the door to wonderful world of warm human relationship, then it becomes marvelous and exciting.
Ruan is progressing gradually everyday. He recognizes new words every day. He likes to sit next to Mary and listen intently to her instructions. He has developed a ritual. He practices writing or reading first and then he wants to play checkers with me. He has been faithful in his lessons everyday. I think that this Christmas he is going to get his wish.