My US church sent the Brazilian teachers $200 to spend as they pleased for their deaf students. They were excited and asked me to join them to walk to the stationery store so they could buy materials for the classroom. “Finally,” I thought, “we can buy some new crayons, pencils, notebooks, and construction paper! We wouldn’t have to use the donations from the classrooms from hearing children!” Two classrooms were recently opened in the “regular” school for the Deaf elementary school students so they wouldn’t have to meet in the local Catholic Church sacristy anymore. Parents had lobbied the Mayor of the city hard over a two-month period, lobbying for the right of their children to have an education, too. Everyone was giddy over the victory and my church in the US wanted to help them celebrate.
The streets of the city were festive; storefronts were decorated prepping for the annual celebration of St. John, a time when people ate everything imaginable made out of corn and danced to music of fiddles and accordions. Forro reminded me of square dancing where families and communities joined in drinking, eating and watching everyone keeping time with their steps to the music. Northeast Brazil was known for this holiday where schools had special parties, families had friends over for music and food and churches carried icons of St. John through the street. People looked forward to it almost as much as Carnival.
The teachers and I each bought some steamed corn on a stick in the street and gave a thumbs up or down judging how corn cobs were decorated and hung on light poles. When we arrived at the stationery store I gave the $200 to the head teacher and bee lined for the beginning reading books which I thought might be good for the kindergartners and first graders. I called the reading teacher over, but she was engrossed in selecting crepe paper decorations. What? She was looking at decorations? The head teacher had streams of shiny aluminum foil streamers over one arm and was encouraging the math teacher in her selection of cut-out letters. “I hope they have all the letters for St. John’s name left.” What?
To my horror, the teachers were all buying decorations to hang in the classrooms, not scissors, writing paper or chalk which was sorely needed to teach and learn. “What are you doing?!” I asked the head teacher a little desperately. “What about these simple reading books?! Or rulers?!” She just looked at me blankly. I looked at the seven statues of St. John on the shelf and asked them all for help. I had made it clear earlier that this money was theirs to spend as they wanted, so I had to shut up and be disappointed seeing them buy paper goods that would be used once and tossed away…for what?
I soon learned for what. The deaf children were new in the school and obviously “different” because they didn’t talk, but signed and sometimes made strange noises. Even though the hearing teachers of the hearing children were “fine” about the new deaf students, it was obvious they were a bit wary as the deaf children were like children they hadn’t seen before. But! When the Deaf children’s classrooms were decked out as beautiful as all the other classrooms in the school, the hearing students were happy to come in and get candy and to look to see how Deaf children decorated their desks, the walls and ceilings… same as they had! They then invited them to come and see their classrooms. It was the first time we saw any interaction between the deaf and hearing children – a positive reaction that showed all of them they were just all kids but communicated differently. From that point on, the invisible wall of difference continued to tumble down.
I was dead set against the teachers buying “frivolous” party supplies — but they knew exactly what the children needed. I never questioned their spending ever again… and the St. John statue I returned and bought, continued to remind me to be quiet and trust the wisdom of others.