Alegria! Alegria! (Happiness! Happiness!)
After my Peace Corps service ended in 1969, I wrote to residents of Glória for a while, but many Brazilians took months to respond or didn’t respond at all. Eventually my teaching job, graduate studies, volunteer work, new husband, and hectic lifestyle took over. I lost touch with the wonderful people of Glória.
Once I had access to internet service in the 90’s, I searched for the town of Glória, with no luck. I knew it might take a while for information technology to reach the sertão.
After several years of searching, I found a web site called Sou de Glória (I’m from Glória). The first virtual postcard that I opened showed an image of the town’s cell tower. Glória was no longer the underdeveloped town in the middle of the hinterland. Photos showed a city that had grown immensely in the intervening years. The church was the only thing I recognized. I posted a notice stating that I would like to contact old friends from Glória, but all I received was Portuguese spam.
In late 2008, I found a notice about a poet and professor from Glória, Jorge Henrique, who was going to present his epic poem on the anniversary of the founding of Glória. I sent an e-mail message asking if he knew some of the people I wished to contact, and if so, requested he give them my contact information.
He responded almost immediately, but then I heard nothing for months.
In May 2009, everything changed. Jorge Henrique wrote a short article about my Peace Corps blog and posted it on Glória’s official web site and also on the web site of the city's colégio.
Within a few days, I heard from Alcione the youngest daughter of Dona Guiomar ---a great and progressive woman who had been the elementary school director when I lived in Glória. Alcione, was 6 at that time. A few days later I heard from her eldest sister Celia, one of my former students, who had been about 13 when I left Brazil. In 2009 their mother was 81 and doing well.
I received news from Idalécio, another of my former students. After I replied to him, he kindly wrote back with more news of residents of Glória. I cried reading his e-mail. First, sadly, some of my friends and neighbors had died, including his parents, Nancides a fellow high school teacher, and Dona Nininha who had treated me and another PCV like daughters. But he also sent good news about many of my friends and neighbors. Soon, I heard from Nadja, one of Dona Nininha's daughters and the son of José Augusto and Teresa, both former students without internet access. Eventually, I received messages from about 20 people.
When I left Glória, more than 40 years ago, I was proud to be a part of the first ginásio (high school) in the town. It had been established only a few years earlier. When I arrived, no one had graduated yet. As proud as I was to be teaching these exceptional students ---I am a firm believer that education can open doors for anyone ---I worried that there would be no opportunities for high school graduates in Glória.
The town had no industry. There were local farms and small businesses that served the town (bars, bakeries, a fabric shop, cabinet makers, etc.) And there were several state or federal agencies. DNOCS fought droughts. ANCARSE provided a home economist and an agronomist to help farmers and homemakers and to teach students practical skills at one-room schools in the interior. The Brazilian Legion of Assistance created chicken cooperatives. Most of the people working in these agencies were not from Glória. They had arrived from the state capital and most would move back there or to another larger city if the opportunity arose.
There was a branch of the Bank of Brazil which had an all-male work force. Most of the bankers were also from other cities, with only two local employees with low-level jobs. And most of the men had submitted requests to move to larger cities when there were openings for them.
Opportunities for women were almost nonexistent, except for teaching. But there wasn’t a need for more than a few teachers, and most teaching jobs were part-time.
Those who wanted to continue their educations would have to live in Aracajú or another larger city to attend a colégio, which was somewhat like the last two years of high school in the U.S. That meant staying with relatives or paying room and board in addition to tuition. Some students’ families already struggled to pay for tuition, uniforms, books and other supplies for the ginásio. The good thing was that if students completed courses at a colégio, university tuition would be free.
I feared it would take decades for any progress in the town to permit the graduates to branch into new fields or to build better lives for themselves, their families, and their community.
I am so happy that I was wrong.
Idalécio became a chemical engineer and a professor. Other former students studied to be a meteorologist, a bank manager, a federal police officer, a lawyer, a doctor, a secretary of agriculture, and a social worker. Several became teachers or worked in public health.
I felt like a proud parent who wanted to brag about her children. But, of course, 40 years had passed and the youngest of my former students was in her fifties.
I had just turned 22 when I arrived and not quite 24 when I left Glória. Some adults who had never before had the opportunity to attend high school, had been my students. The oldest had been 44 and would be in his eighties in 2009.
I am proud that I played even the tiniest part in their educations. Apparently, at least for some, the doors of opportunity opened. I’m sure it took much hard work and sacrifice for many of them to continue learning and to achieve success in their chosen fields, but they did.
Knowing this, is the best gift I have received in many years. Peace Corps was the most rewarding experience of my life. Knowing that many of my students have become educated, successful adults doubled, tripled, even quadrupled that reward.
And now, I have given myself a gift. Brunie (the other PCV who served in Glória) and I will travel to Brazil in August of 2011 ---the first time either of us have returned ---to visit our friends and former students including Alcione, Celia, Dona Guiomar, Idalécio, Nadja and many others. We will visit Glória to see how the town has progressed and to meet Jorge Henrique, who facilitated our making contact with the residents of Glória ---the very people who helped to define and shape our own lives.
(Look for my forthcoming story about that trip.)