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Charming 9-year-old schoolgirl teaches elderly street vendor to read and write

BARBARA MATOS COSTA
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When this little girl saw a way she could help, she didn’t hesitate to step in and make a lasting difference.

In today’s world, a story of spontaneous kindness, friendship, and generosity across racial and generational lines feels like a breath of fresh air. The story of Barbara and “Old Joey,” in which the typical teacher-student age relationship is turned on its head, takes place in Brazil.

It started about two years ago, and made a splash in Brazilian and other Latin American social networks and media; you can find the full story in this wonderful video by Inspire Fundo, a YouTube channel in Portuguese. Even if you don’t understand Portuguese, you’ll enjoy watching it: The smiles, innocence, and love need no translation.

Francisco Santana Filho, 68, is affectionately known as “Seu Zezinho,” which roughly translates as “Old Joey.” He lives in the town of Crato in Ceará, northeastern Brazil, where he was born. It’s a region where illiteracy is sadly common; according to the video, the rate of illiteracy there reaches nearly 14%, and is even higher among the elderly and people of color, like Old Joey, who hadn’t learned his ABCs until Barbara came along.

Old Joey works as a street vendor selling frozen fruit bars, a job he started at the age of 12. He says it was harder back when he began, because he had to carry a heavy wooden box through the street. Today he carries a much lighter pastel blue foam cooler. It appears in the video, in which Old Joey uses it as both storage for the iced treats and an improvised percussion instrument.

He’s been selling frozen fruit bars to students at Barbara’s school for more than 40 years. In an article in the Gazeta do Cariri, he says, “Many of the students who used to chat with me here, like Barbara, have their own families today. I watched them grow up.”

That brings us to Barbara Matos Costa herself. She was 9 years old when this story was first reported in April of 2019. She likes school, particularly English class, and says she’s thought of becoming a doctor, a veterinarian, or a master chef. She’s known Old Joey for several years, and likes to buy treats from him. Her favorite flavor is strawberry.

“One day,” she says in the video, “I was having a little bit of difficulty with an assignment for Portuguese class. So I went to ask him if he knew, so he could help me. He said he didn’t know.”

Old Joey continues to tell the story: “‘Old Joey, do you know how to read and write?’ [she asked]. I answered, ‘No, I don’t. I never went to school, no.’ She grabbed her notebook, and right there, began to teach me. At first I thought she was kidding, you know? She’s a little girl, right? But no, man, this was serious business.”

FRANCISCO, BARBARA, BRASIL
Inspire Fundo | Youtube

“First,” Barbara cheerily recounts, “I wrote the alphabet and told him to copy it. I told him to look for the letters in his name,” she says. Old Joey remembers how “she started to teach me and I made mistakes. It’s hard, isn’t it! I forget the letters … She gives me tests, and sends me home with homework, you know? The way she does things is really nice.”

Apparently, Barbara’s winsome classroom manner is effective. She says that Old Joey is a good student; the Gazeta do Cariri quotes her as saying, “He passed [the test]. He got 90%!” She says in the video,

I think he’s been through a lot of difficulties because of not knowing how to read or write. I’m feeling really good because I know that Old Joey is learning. He’s a good person and he needed to know how to read and write someday.

Old Joey is grateful for her initiative in helping him. “It was my dream to learn to write my own name,” he says. “Barbara helped me a lot. She’s an angel. For me, and my family. She became part of my family.”

We all can learn from Barbara, even if we already know how to read and write. She saw a person who lacked something she could give, and without overthinking it, she took the time to share her knowledge. Rizélia Maria Sobreira, one of Barbara’s teachers, says in the video,

A girl of Barbara’s age, in her simplicity, with her notebook and pencil, has changed the life of a person who is special for all of us at the school, someone who has always been dearly loved. Education is what will change the world. So, that’s a very powerful lesson for all of us.

“This attitude came from her, from her loving heart. No one told her what to do or suggested it to her; this is why we find it so beautiful and important,” she told the Gazeta.

It’s not by chance that Jesus told us we have to become like children to enter the Kingdom of Heaven (Mt 18:3). Perhaps if we could forget ourselves a little more and look at the needs of others, as Barbara did, and have the humility and simplicity of Old Joey (who seems to have kept his childlike heart intact), some of the divisions and conflict in society today would disappear, and we could help to build a kinder, happier world.

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