José at Escola Porto Alegre

José (pseudonym) is there again, as usual poorly dressed. He looks up for a moment when I enter, then returns to his work. His patience has always been remarkable to me. Now again I observe him standing, his whole body turned to the desk, as his hands, gently or firmly as necessary, glide across the pieces of paper, glue, metal cords, scissors, dried leaves, and other materials he works with. He then moves quickly but lightly across the wooden floor, searches through a drawer, and takes what he needs; he does so without looking to me or the others in the room, quickly returning to his work.

José is there almost every day – the work has now progressed, and notebooks with nicely decorated hardcovers have been produced. Marcia, the teacher, remains invisible for most of the time, but she sometimes might help for a moment or two, commenting on or arranging the newly made notebooks. The room is not very well-lit and everything there is old – tables, cupboards, desks, chairs. Even the walls should have been painted a long time ago. Quite a lot of tools and some machinery (to cut or press paper etc.) are lying around, but there is no particular decoration. I am impressed how well he deals with all the tools and materials and like his products very much – hardcovers for books and notebooks in all possible shapes and colors, decorated with ink drawings and dried flowers.

Arts constitute one of the most important subjects at this school, which is based on the principles of communitarian therapy and Freireian pedagogy. José still has to learn mathematics, Portuguese, and history as well as computers, environmental and political education, and other subjects that are decided by the general assembly and taught in thematic project mode. He is a 16-year-old student. Similarly to all other students – who are between 13 and 24 years old – José is offered a basic level of education that correlates more to what in other contexts would be primary school knowledge. About 100 students are registered, and half of them participate regularly.

The school, where we are, is a quite well known school for homeless students in Porto Alegre, Brazil: the Escola Porto Alegre (EPA). The Escola Porto Alegre emerged in the context of educação popular – a broader Brazilian movement for public education for all. This school is in many regards an open school (escola aberta): it is first of all open in the sense that a student is welcome at the school, but is not obliged to stay there; the school is also in many regards open for students who would elsewhere feel marginalized; it is open for the residents of the school’s neighborhood during the afternoon; it is open in the sense of its direct participation in the city’s councils as well its collaborations with many other institutions – even international ones.

Where José slept the night before is an open question: according to his teachers and his own narrations, he does not have a family, he does not have a home, and he does not currently belong to a certain gang or some other group that would provide him with food and security. When the school doors open for students, he goes quickly through the schoolyard to the rooms at the right to take a shower.

José has just received the amount of 50 Reais for the notebooks he sold through the school last month. He must still collect cans and other recyclable materials from the streets and sell them to supplement his income. I am not sure what his expenses are. He does not have a home and cannot afford a mobile phone; he gets food at the school, as well as some used clothes or other things that might be donated to the school from the neighborhood. Drug-dealing for male students and prostitution for the female ones are quite common activities among the students of this school – but not for José, who is very enthusiastic about the paper cover construction and is slowly creating a network of clients for his paper products. Perhaps some day he will earn his whole living with it.

But before that it will be night again, the school (home?) will be closed, and the night is hard. I continue to observe how he cuts the paper, he looks like so concentrated, intense moments of silence pass by…

More details & stories on Sept, 15, 9.00-11.00, SS 10.05 BERA Innovative Session “Youth in Movement in Contemporary Brazil: Moving Stories of José, Carlos, Raquel, and Werá Mirim” – Storytellers : Ali Messer, University of Roehampton & Dr Michalis Kontopodis, University of Sheffield

See also the recently printed book: Kontopodis, M., Magalhaes, M. C., & Coracini, M. J. (Eds.). (2016). Facing poverty and marginalization: 50 years of critical research in Brazil. Bern, Oxford and New York: Peter Lang.

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