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.”