As I stood in an unkempt Brazilian park, seemingly landscaped as an afterthought, trucks and buses careened left and right on the thoroughfare behind me. Their cacophony was accentuated by a squeaking highway sign, detached from its post and swinging carelessly in the wind, perpetually in danger of tumbling, scythe-like, to the asphalt below. It was in this setting that ten-year-old Caio, bursting with energy, told me about the day he nearly lost a finger.
In Pirituba, a peripheral suburb of São Paulo, breathless talk of the impending Olimpíadas and Copa do Mundo fills the air, but there is a sense of unease—amid the optimism—about Brazil’s readiness for the one-two punch in less immediately visible ways. The convergence of these mammoth undertakings formed an intriguing backdrop for my internship teaching English at a city-funded program linking athletic achievement with social dividends. Many of the metropolis’ community centers now have these initiatives, Clubes Escola (“School Clubs”), that provide afterschool sports programs for children and teenagers.
The tension surrounding Brazil’s increasing exposure on the world stage was certainly reflected in Caio’s experience. Amid a welcome peppering of questions to me about America (“Have you met Michael Jackson? Have you met Barack Obama?”), he related his close brush with death.
“This place is too dangerous,” he told me authoritatively, and I was pleased he was teaching me for a change. He gestured at my backpack, the placement of my wallet, and my overall demeanor. “You have to be on the lookout all the time.”
He was right. In São Paulo, a friend commented about a loss of “our culture.” The famous friendliness of Brazilians seemed to wane there, and paulistanos were sheltering themselves—quite understandably—in the vast apartment buildings that ten percent of Brazilians now call home. Caio pointed at an area behind my workplace, where a steep hillside separates the community center from a few dilapidated tenements and his public primary school. “It was over there,” he said expressionlessly. “This is why you can never walk on that road that goes by the hillside. One day, at seven in the morning, I walked it to get to my school. Right as I got to the top, a man ran out, reached for my backpack, and threatened to stab me.”
He gripped his fingers anxiously. “I didn’t know what to do. I let him take my backpack, but he almost cut my finger off anyway.” With that, he showed me his hand, where an inch-long scar ravaged his pointer finger, and pursed his lips in frustration.
“I couldn’t go to school anymore after that,” he said. “The Clube Escola will kick me out because I dropped out, but futebol’s the only thing I’ve got left.”
Professor Tatá, as he is affectionately known, is one of the head soccer coaches, and while I watched a pickup soccer game from the sidelines, he described his ambitious vision between pep talks and demonstrations. “My goal is not to create soccer players,” he said. “It’s to create citizens.”
At Clube Escola Liderança, the fruits of his labor were omnipresent. Before me, I saw the new synthetic grass that adorned the formerly sand-only soccer field, laid only weeks before my arrival. I peered at the students, uniformed in matching white Clube Escola T-shirts and blue shin guards. I noticed onlookers, young and old, cheering the athletes on.
The Clube Escola program is unrivaled in its penetration of the most disadvantaged neighborhoods of São Paulo. Scarcely five blocks from the community center, the ramshackle roofs of corrugated steel and signature symbols of favela life starkly belie the rapid development Pirituba pursues today. Yet the Clube Escola and the Pirituba community center enjoy high attendance at their programs in youth soccer and judo—with more than a hundred participants—building on high esteem for established opportunities in yoga and other initiatives for adults. Children at the Clube Escola are admitted solely on proof of enrollment at school, and they must continue to keep up academically in order to stay in the program.
My project was to offer the students a comprehensive curriculum in English that immersed them in the language, but that they could relate to. Relying on educational materials that I had written, I managed to weave the formidable difficulty of English into a course that incorporated elements of citizenship, leadership and futebol to inspire my students. But given the state of Brazilian public education today, I found that many pupils already “exposed” to English were subjected to frequent teacher absenteeism and an unsatisfactory curriculum, compounded by a paucity of teaching materials and infrastructure.
As one of my most driven students, Luis, told me, he and his brother suffered from a curriculum too advanced for their ability and too limited in its approach. Every day, he said, they would relearn numbers and the verb to be, and no progress was made in grammar or vocabulary. “[Our teacher] talks so fast that the only words I can understand are ‘boys and girls,’” he lamented.
These disadvantages were striking. In my first week of classes, I taught basic greetings and games to forty students, ages eight to seventeen, irrespective of their prior credentials. By the end of my internship my class enrollment had dwindled to eight motivated learners, only half of whom presented final projects about their career aspirations. They stunned me with their newfound fluency with each successive poster: I want to be a veterinarian. A pilot. A teacher.
Nonetheless, my biggest shock was with Marcos, a struggling youngster whose English had not improved since day one. Each time I drilled conjugations of to have, I attempted to involve him. He merely shook his head and remained silent. “He doesn’t know the answer because he can’t read,” his classmates eventually informed me. “And he’s in the fifth grade.” I then realized that he had simply been emulating his classmates’ responses and repeating my spoken words. I bordered on despair as I sent him home, pained that there was nothing more I could do.
For all its incredible progress in the last several decades, Brazil still has work to do before it can fend off accusations of unpreparedness for the two most important sporting events on earth. Hope is on the horizon with programs like Clube Escola; through playing soccer and extolling teamwork and sportsmanship, these young athletes will grasp what it means to exercise citizenship and command self-discipline. These are Olympic qualities.
On one breezy evening, one of my last before I would leave São Paulo, I left a co-worker’s birthday party and walked to the Coração de Bugre bus stop. During the day, it is a bustling place evocative of a forward-looking Brazil. Casual commuters eagerly brandish smartphones and music players, as newfangled LED screens list the next arriving buses. At night, the stop becomes silent, with people looking furtively about them, warily keeping hands—and fingers—safe in pockets. Even so, amidst the insecure darkness, there is a brilliant beacon of possibility in the distance: the newly installed stadium lights at Clube Escola Liderança, where a brightly illuminated team of teenagers kick and lunge on into the night.