Why a tiny dove will always remind me of teaching in Brazil

I have a few blog post ideas on my list right now, but this evening prompted me to set those aside for the moment and write about what happened this evening. Forgive me in advance for sounding sentimental, cliche or overly sappy!

Tonight was my second-to-last German class that I taught to my advanced group here in Brazil. When I walked into the classroom this evening, one of my students sprung up from her chair and exclaimed, “Tessa, wir haben ein Geschenk für Sie!” The class had gotten together and bought me a necklace by one of the iconic tile designers of Brasilia, Athos Bulcão, whose work can be seen all over the city. The necklace pendant is in the shape of a dove and comes from the tile design on the outside walls of the “Igrejinha” here in Asa Sul. A perfect gift from Brasilia, for several reasons.

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The Igrejinha

From my Brazilian friend, I know that it is custom for Brazilian students to get their teachers gifts at the end of the year as a token of appreciation and gratitude (I am already planning out the presents for my son’s “tias” at daycare!). But this evening I was still completely surprised by the sweet and thoughtful gesture of my students. Funnily, I had always admired this particular necklace and had always secretly wanted it! As a teacher, you reap your greatest reward from your students’ achievements. If you’re lucky, you are able to form personal relationships with them, but this doesn’t always happen. Tonight my students told me that they would miss me and they genuinely thanked me for the class; it almost brought me to tears. See, I warned you this would be sappy…

Had you told me five years ago that I would be living in Brazil teaching German to Brazilians, I would have been dumbfounded. And though there are many similarities between teaching German to Americans and teaching German to Brazilians, the language and cultural barriers certainly posed a challenge. I am even more grateful that my students were willing to work with a teacher who didn’t speak their native language–and I felt humbled by the fact their English was as good as, in most cases better than, their German (a fact that made me even more self-conscious about my bad Portuguese). This group in particular showed such engagement and motivation to learn that I always looked forward to meeting with them. I also learned a lot about Brazilian culture through my interactions with them in class; though I am very familiar with the cultural differences between Germany and the U.S., I had to often rely on my students to identify these for me with regard to Germany-Brazil. In that sense, they were also teaching me.

I shared a great deal of laughs with my students, too. I remember one time in particular, I wanted to give one of my students a fist bump for getting an answer correct and he laughed, saying “You are such a gringa!” At this point I couldn’t decide whether to take it as a compliment or insult. But then I realized he was poking fun at me in a good-natured way–and I started to crack up, too.

It was also a tumultuous political year–both in the U.S. and here in Brazil. Not often, but occasionally these issues came up in our class and I listened intently to my students’ opinions about Dilma, Temer, etc.–which they of course expressed in German. Very surreal! I was careful to keep my own political beliefs guarded, but was glad to answer questions when my students stayed after class and wanted me to explain the U.S. electoral college to them…I guess in that sense, I was carrying out my layperson diplomatic duty.

But speaking of diplomacy–isn’t the promotion of language, mutual understanding and cross-cultural dialogue central to that? Of course, I was teaching German language and culture, but they know me as an American, too. And isn’t a dove the perfect symbol of peace and goodwill? Though I might eventually journey down a different career path, I still believe in the power education has in promoting peace and fighting against hate and discrimination.

At least, that is what I know to be true. And I will think of that when I wear my dove.

…. Ok, enough sappiness! 🙂

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