PLATTSBURGH — After returning from a fellowship for poets and authors in Brazil, middle-school teacher Marjorie Light is full of new ideas for the classroom and for her own writing.
Author Kwame Alexander founded the program, called the Book-in-a-Day fellowship, in 2006. The program brings together writers from around the country.
When she heard about the fellowship, Light knew she had to apply, despite her busy schedule.
“When the opportunity came up, even though my life was really busy, I couldn’t pass it up,” she said. “I didn’t think I’d ever have the opportunity to travel to the southern hemisphere.”
She was interviewed over the phone and granted the fellowship along with six other fiction and poetry writers from New Jersey, Massachusetts, New York City, Washington, D.C., Maryland and Canada.
Many of the participants are in the midst of writing projects and were able to get feedback while in Brazil.
“It connected me to other authors,” Light said of the experience.
The fellowship was for two weeks in June and July.
Brazil is in its rainy season and since it’s off-season, there weren’t many American tourists in the areas she visited, Light said.
One of the more noticeable traits of Brazil is its wealth of public art, Light said. She was told that the vast majority of the commissioned artists are white, even though Brazil’s population consists almost entirely of blacks who are the descendants of slaves brought over from Africa in colonial times.
The group had a student-intern guide named Paula, who was with them for most of the trip and helped the fellows with Portuguese-to-English translation and friendly haggling at the Mercado Modelo market in Salvador, a Brazilian city located on the coast.
The handmade artisan wares sold in the more than 200 stalls in the market included musical instruments, embroidery and jewelry. Most items seemed inexpensive to Light and her companions, she said. One real, which is Brazil’s currency, is worth 50 U.S. cents, Light said.
The Brazilian people were friendly and curious, and many came out of their houses to look at the group as they walked to a poetry reading one evening.
“Everywhere we went, we were greeted warmly and enthusiastically,” Light said.
‘DEPTH OF POVERTY’
As Light walked through the streets of Salvador and saw more and more of Brazil, it became apparent that facets of its unique beauty tell a story of poverty and lack of opportunity, she said.
The colorful buildings of orange, blue and pink disguise the peeling paint and mold that hinted at the poverty of the locals.
Out of everything she saw, it was the widespread poverty that made the biggest impression on her.
It was especially noticeable in the historic city of Cachoeira.
“I had never seen that depth of poverty before,” Light said. “It makes me realize that we truly are very fortunate in the United States.”
The poverty of families in Brazil often affects the quality of their children’s education, she said.
Brazil has a law that requires children to attend school until they are teenagers, but the students Light talked with said the law is rarely enforced.
A good school can cost 12,000 reals a year, she said. And families must pay the school even during the summer, when students do not attend classes.
Light took many photos to document what she saw.
She intends to show them to her Stafford Middle School students once class is back in session.
Light is at work on a new book about teaching poetry, which features the work of some of her seventh-grade students.
The fellowship deepened her appreciation for the quality of public education available in United States.
“I love my job,” Light said. “Every day, I enjoy going to work.”
The experience is one she won’t soon forget.
“Learning about the culture, history and daily lives of the people in Brazil has been such a blessing,” she said.