In my mother´s family manners came before everything else. In fact they had a phrase `FHB´ which my grandmother would hiss at my mother and my aunt. `FHB’ meant ´Family Hold Back´ this was to remind them that the guests came first. In some ways manners became a tyrant for my mother and even now she is occasionally imprisoned by the fear of being ill mannered or rude. As a consequence my mother and Aunt are the heavyweight champions of manners; they take politeness to new extremes. They are the premier league, no one can be thanked enough, everything they taste, see, hear or sit on is wonderful, they can´t do enough to help. When they are together a hardcore politeness battle is played out and there is rarely a victor.
I had a small family gathering one Christmas and I was ready for the onslaught of superlatives. I knew all my efforts would be appreciated, but I also wanted some reality. As with my pupils unless the praise given is specific and real it starts to fall flat. So I told them both, your mission for today is to find fault with something, tell me something you don´t like? This was unfair of me. For both of them the idea of being a critical guest was unthinkable! They couldn´t do it, even when they had permission. I did fear for a moment that if I allowed them to unleash, 50 years of repressed criticism would come pouring out and I would regret having given them carte blache to find fault…
However, I am proud to say they have instilled in me some of their gracious good manners. Although I am more comfortable than them in declining something I don’t like. In general I am good guest. I rarely arrive empty handed, I don´t overstay my welcome and I don’t make a mess on the carpet.
Now I am a guest at a bigger party, I am the guest of a whole country and I want to display the same respectful good manners instilled in me by my family. I am a welcomed visitor to a new world. I am aware of myself existing in an unfamiliar place. Constantly supported, aided and enabled by those who are confident in this new world of mine. I have been fortunate in that the system which educated, trained and employed me as a teacher, provided me with skills and knowledge which are currency here in Brazil. I am fortunate that the school I work in now has allowed me to share my knowledge, that it is populated with staff ripe and open for new ideas. I am fortunate that the language I was born to, which I learnt through osmosis which I have continued to study and worship all my life, is considered a prized skill. Although I know I worked for these things, their value in Brazil is so much higher I don´t really feel like I earned them. I am a guest in this beautiful country, a guest made welcome by friendly supportive people. I am a resident, a tourist and a visitor. I am acutely aware of this. I am a guest welcomed for the luck of my language, valued for this random linguistic ability. But I am here and for so many reasons I want to make it count.
The opportunity arose when my wonderful Brazilian colleague told me about her dream. Her dream to create a library in place where they had few books. She invited me to visit a rural school with her to see if we could share our love of language and books with this community. I saw a chance for me to give something back to Brazil. When I worked in the UK I constantly advocated reading. I believe literacy is empowering, life changing. Words can save you in your darkest times, bring comfort and support. Written language is a gift to be savoured and shared.
I had read many times that Brazil was a land of contrasts, this vast country with a rapidly growing economy, a diverse mix, extremes of rich and poor. This guest was given an insight as the donations of books and toys flooded in. I stood at the gates of my school as bag after bag of toys and books arrived and the pile grew and grew. Overwhelmed by what we had collected, I was struck by how much we had to spare in this part of Brazilian society I existed in.
We drove 2 hours to the rural school, along with 26 pupils. On the journey I wrestled with my dilemma. What was I teaching my pupils by taking their discarded toys and books? What were they really learning about here? How easy is it to simply give away something we no longer want or need? But books? Books feel different. Books can only ever be good to share. There is never shame in giving away a book. I always had a rule for myself, no matter how poor I was, how little money I had, I could always buy books guilt free. Buying and sharing books is always right.
Then we arrived, a never ending procession of bags, books and toys filling their playground. The children of the school, well mannered and instructed to stand still to greet us, eye wide, feet giving away their excitement as they watched the toy mountain grow in front of them. Of course it felt good; giving a toy to a child always feels good. But there was so much more happening there that day.
Far more important than the toys was the Wormery, donated and paid for by a parent. Lessons on how to use it, from a teacher and his daughter. The recycling bins given and the games planned and led by our pupils on how to use them. The playground games we painted the murals we have planned. The long term empowering changes we are trying to support the school in making. Sustainability, exchanges of teacher’s knowledge and expertise, the building of playground toys from recycled materials. And for me, most important of all, the library. A growing collection of books for the children to read at school and at home. The gift of reading, a precious commodity. My momentary dilemma about the toys was irrelevant. I believe this was my chance to show my gratitude to Brazil for welcoming me and I will try to continue to be a polite and respectful guest.