“Neném, tsc tsc, não gostei.” – A tribute to a great teacher

A few days ago, a former classmate of mine sent me the saddest Facebook message, “They are turning off Helimar’s life support.”

Deep breath.

Helimar was our Portuguese teacher. He taught my group at years 3, 5, and 8, if memory serves me right. Somehow he knew how to deal with us at any age, no matter whether we were doing well or struggling, and everybody seemed to love him.

My strongest memory of him is a fight for the adoption of a book. I was 8 or 9, and I took a book I liked to school, just to show him. Honestly, I cannot reconcile how shy I used to be back then with boldly coming up to a teacher (teachers were gods!) with something “I” liked, as if I had the right to like or dislike anything. It just goes to show how safe I felt around him and how approachable he was. He did not say much, but looked at the title Menino brinca de boneca? (Do boys play with dolls?), smiled, and asked if he could have it for a while. I didn’t know what he was going to do with it, but later I found out that, in a time when students did not have much voice, he took my suggestion on board and fought for it. Months later, he brought my book back, face marked by defeat, “The coordination has decided we cannot add a book to the list now.”

Just like that. “Coordination”, that faceless being that supersedes all things. I never talked about that with him again, but in retrospect, I guess the problem was that I went to a very traditional school. I am not sure they would let a book like that be adopted nowadays, in the new millennium, let alone in the early 90’s with all their conservative backlash.

Yet, if I am not mistaken, and please excuse the fuzziness of memories over 2 decades later, it was him who had us read a book about a princess who did not want to be a princess, cut her hair short and jumped the castle walls. Frozen is still felt to be revolutionary at this day and age, with its Disney princesses who can function without a man, so you can imagine what that represented in 1991.

He wanted to deconstruct gender stereotypes with 9-year-olds in the 90’s. What a guy! And then again, in junior high, using song lyrics as prompts for reading tests, pointing out that reading was everywhere. Speaking of which, to this day I remember I got an item wrong in one of those. I did not know what ‘birita’ meant in ‘Eduardo e Monica’ by Legião Urbana and failed to infer meaning from context. Way to value informal language as well!

And now he is gone. As his catch phrase would go when we misbehaved, “Neném, tsc tsc, não gostei.” (i.e. Baby, tsc tsc, I did not like this.)

I loved the subject, though, no matter how dry and repetitive Portuguese as an L1 can be in Brazilian schools. And I admired the man.

Years later, at 17, I had to make that impossibly hard decision of what I would study in uni. Majoring in Portuguese and English was regarded as abdicating from any chance of future wealth, just not the done thing… except I had an unsung hero as a role model, and that gave me the confidence boost I needed.

If it is said that everybody has a teacher that was important to them, all the more so — I believe —  in the case of those of us who have chosen to pursue education. Not an easy career choice, by any stretch of the imagination, but may we all be so lucky as to touch the life of a child as Helimar did to many of ours. And thus we shall all live on.

R.I.P., Prof. Helimar.


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Natália Guerreiro

Natália Guerreiro has been a teacher since the year 2000 and currently works in Aviation English assessment and teaching for the Brazilian Air Force. She holds a CELTA, a B.A. in English & Portuguese from UFRJ, and an M.A. in Applied Linguistics from the University of Melbourne. She's been elected BRAZ-TESOL's Second Vice President for the 2019-2020 term.

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