The Difference a Teacher Can Make in a Young Boy’s Life: From Brazil to Macau
William Guedes Cortezia, Fitchburg State University
At age 5, a young Brazilian boy named William left his native city of Rio de Janeiro to fly across the globe to Macau, China. His family was traveling outside of Brazil for the first time, embarking on a diplomatic mission representing the Brazilian government. William’s only previous educational experience was attending pre-K in Rio. Now, he was far away from what he knew as home. He did not speak English, much less Cantonese—only Portuguese. His family was told that Macau was a former Portuguese colony, and so they would easily adapt. But no one they met spoke Portuguese. Although a few elders in town did vaguely remember some Portuguese they learned in grammar school, it was the Portuguese of Portugal rather than Brazil.
In Brazil, children in pre-K referred to their teachers as “tios” and “tias” (uncles and aunts). Educators in that culture are accustomed to hugging and kissing their students. Back home, William sang and danced in school; expressing one’s emotions was not only normal, but also expected. When William arrived at St. Rose of Lima Academy in Macau for his first day of 1st grade in February of 1980, he soon discovered the teachers did not give hugs or kisses, only a few smiles. They were methodical, but kind. Two teachers would stand at the door to welcome everyone at the start of the day. They communicated with William through signals, such as pointing.
That first day, William did not know a soul at the school. The children were friendly. They kept pointing to his eyes; they were curious about the differences in his appearance from their own. The children were all Cantonese and they all spoke English. William learned enough English to communicate with faculty, staff, and his peers. His teachers were strict but fair; at times, they seemed cold, but they were always gentle. Yet William soon began having academic issues. Learning how to read was difficult for him. Initially, his parents and faculty thought his problems were the result of the language barrier. Eventually, however, testing showed that William was dyslexic.
Suddenly, William was not in the same classroom with his new friends; he was pulled out for individual lessons. He had two teachers—one for English as a second language classes (including the pull-outs) and one for recess and specials (physical education, art, music). These two teachers were patient and calm—always very calm. But there were no hugs, singing, or dancing in their classes. Hugs were simply not conceivable.
Two things were never allowed: quitting or crying. There was absolutely no crying. Every time William learned something and was assessed positively, he would receive a huge smile. A small tap on the head and a bow was the ultimate prize for William.
Each lesson was calmly demonstrated; everything had an explanation—a reason. There was a method for everything. William was taught to question what he learned. To ask why, when, who, and where. There was no memorization. Everything was show. English was taught through literature, the arts, civics, and morals.
By 3rd grade, William was fluent in English, and would even dare speak a bit of Cantonese. He was completely adapted to the school, with his peers and the faculty. He LOVED to read. One of the two teachers (English as a second language) would still come and visit him once a week, for ALL the years William was at the school. She did not have to, but she did! She became William’s best friend in school. Every time she visited him, she brought something for him to read in English—mainly comic books and Star Trek booklets (William’s new passion). She ordered 45 Star Trek issues for the school library. William knew she did that just for him. She suggested he listen to Frank Sinatra, because of his English diction. Sinatra became his all-time favorite singer.
In 4th grade, William was placed in his best friend’s class! She was no longer teaching English as a second language; she now had her own classroom. William was ecstatic! All he wanted to do was show her everything he knew, everything he learned! He did not want to disappoint her. He just wanted to make her smile. Fourth grade would be amazing! But it was not to be. Two weeks into the semester, his family transferred to Panama City, Panama. His father told him, “Duty calls…” On his last day at St. Rose, his teacher was waiting for him with a big smile. William promised himself he would not cry; after all, he had learned there is absolutely no crying. But he could not concentrate the whole day. He just thought about leaving his school, which now felt like home. He would be leaving his friends, leaving his best friend—his 4th-grade teacher.
Finally, the bell rang and the day was over. He went to say goodbye to his teacher. She told him how proud she was of him. She told him that the most important thing a man can have in life are his morals and education, and that no one can take those away from him.
Then, she gave him the best present ever—she hugged him and gave him a book (the last one she would give him). It was the last book of the Star Trek volumes William had read to learn English.
William bowed to her, saying, “Dòjeh” (thank you for a gift). She tapped William on the head for the last time. She was crying. He was very confused; there was no crying—absolutely not. What happened? Why was SHE crying? In the first page of the book, she wrote, “Conquer your dreams . . .‘TIA’ Wang.”
William never forgot her. It was because of her that William—that I—became an educator. Mrs. Wong taught me how to speak English, how to think, how to question. She was there for me. She NEVER EVER GAVE UP ON ME. This teacher was caring, and went above and beyond to make me feel confident. She taught me to persevere, to think critically, and to always ask why. She taught me to overcome difficulties and, most specifically, how to love knowledge. She also showed me that, sometimes, it is acceptable to cry.
I will never forget you. The best I can do is pass on what you taught me to my own students (initially my special education students, then my middle school students, and now my teacher candidates). Mrs. Wong is a shining example of what a teacher should be—a professional who uses the science and art of teaching to educate and create student-citizens.
Thank you, Mrs. Caroline Wong. Dòjeh.
William Guedes Cortezia Ph.D.
Former Special Education Public Educator
Current Education Professor
Graduate Chair – Middle School Program
Fitchburg State University – Fitchburg, Massachusetts