By Charlotte Hopper, Brazil:
This should be easy, I thought as I prepared to make the switch from teaching elementary-school-aged children to teaching teenagers. After all, I have been a teacher all my adult life. Was I in for a surprise!
Younger children are generally quite trusting and respectful of adults, and nearly all of those I had worked with over the years had accepted my word as “law,” no questions asked. The teens, on the other hand, seemed to question everything. Respect and obedience–things I had long considered every teacher’s due–were no longer guaranteed. It wasn’t that I was always right and the teens were always wrong; they just wanted to do things differently. They wanted to spread their wings, and never seemed to be content to do things the way I or their parents or others of our generation had.
If I had known then what I know now, I probably could have succeeded at that job. Instead, I tried to hold on to my “tried and proven” ways of doing things. My relationship with my students became strained, and I became frustrated, critical, and unhappy.
A little later, I was offered and accepted the job of director of a small but potential social welfare project in a slum area of São Paulo. I had never set foot in a slum before and had no idea what to expect or where to start, but God gave me a coworker who did–Paulo, a 20-year-old Brazilian who had grown up with his missionary parents and had already been working with underprivileged youth for a couple of years. We started our little mission together, and my schooling began!
The basic plan was to combine physical help and practical training with spiritual counseling in order to better the lives of about 100 families living on a city dump. It seemed that every conceivable health, hygiene, and public services problem was present in this area of about 20 hectares (roughly 50 acres)–open sewers, contaminated water, rats and other vermin, unpaved roads, a grossly inadequate jerry-rigged electrical system, you name it.
Fortunately, Paulo had some talents and insight that I lacked. As he helped me interview the families we had come to help, his experience kicked in and my own obvious lack of experience put me in the humble seat.
I had come from an upper-middle-class American family and had never seen such poverty in my life. The physical conditions in the slum overwhelmed me mentally and emotionally. I also didn’t know how to relate to the people we had come to help, or understand how their entire way of thinking had been formed by their suffering, poverty, and day-to-day struggle for basic necessities. I said things that weren’t appropriate, and even made jokes about things that to them weren’t laughing matters. I felt embarrassed whenever Paulo would take me aside and clue me in, but little by little I learned.
Paulo also shared his insights about the needs and attitudes of the various people we interviewed or offered help to, how a certain family wasn’t as needy or as committed to do what they could to improve their living conditions as another family, and so on. He could tell who would prove reliable and worthy of our help; I couldn’t. They all seemed needy and sincere to me. Paulo also knew when some comment would hurt their feelings, or when some action would offend them. He knew how they felt; I didn’t.
The young people there–everyone, in fact–loved Paulo! He got on their level, but only to bring them up. He could talk their language, but then turn the conversation to more positive and constructive subjects in the blink of an eye. One minute he was exhorting, the next minute playing football with them. It all seemed to come naturally to Paulo. How could I not be grateful for his leadership or the suggestions he offered about how I could do things better?
And guess what?–Paulo and I got along marvelously, and our efforts paid off. We have both moved on to other projects, but the work we began together seven years ago flourishes to this day. Why?–I’m sure it’s in part because we learned to work as a team. I was open to Paulo’s advice and followed his capable instruction, and when something came up that I was better suited for, he let me take the lead. When something went wrong, we could talk it out. I respected his talents and opinions, so he respected mine. It really worked!
I learned so much from that experience! For one, I saw that if I had approached teaching teenagers the same way I had the slum project with Paulo, with the attitude that I had much to learn, all of us would have been much happier. If I had encouraged, respected, and trusted them more, they probably would have respected and appreciated me more. Instead of being a know-it-all, I should have let them experiment and then helped them pick up the pieces when things went wrong. We could have grown together.
Thank God for second chances! He certainly knew what He was doing when He led me to leave my teaching job so I could learn the way to young people’s hearts.