Poetry with Professora Elizabeth: Mar Português
With the end of Portuguese school in sight and a class full of students with a decent grasp on how to work with regular verbs in the present tense, I decided to take a break from this spring’s conjugation gauntlet and instead expose them to Portuguese as it’s seen in the wild. No more textbooks; it’s time for real Portuguese words written by real Portuguese people for real Portuguese people.
Today’s the last day of Portuguese school for the year. Check out my class’s first foray in Portuguese poetry, A Cozinha da Avô. In honor of Fernando Pessoa’s birthday, today I’m sharing our class’s journey to understanding “Mar Português.”
Sailing into the end of the year
While the kids in the preschool class are singing Portuguese songs for the end of year presentation we’re putting on to show the parents that their children really did learn something this year, I decided to give my students something I didn’t get much of in Portuguese school: poetry.
And since this is me we’re talking about, we had to study Fernando Pessoa. I wrote about why Mar Português has had such an impact on my life, so go check that out and the translation I wrote if you haven’t already because I’m diving right in.
I may have oversold the poem a bit when my students asked what we were doing that day. “We’re reading my favorite poem in Portuguese. My favorite poem in any language.” So that got their attention.
It also got their expectations up, which meant that the first stanza was a bit of a struggle to get through. All those salty tears and unmarried maidens are depressing without context. “Why is this your favorite?” “Wow, this is really sad.”
Love is not enough
It made me remember a particularly frustrating class I had in college. We were reading The Sound and the Fury, which I came to despise. (It’s an incomprehensible book about terrible people living terrible lives. Southern Gothic does nothing for me. Come at me.) Now, I didn’t expect to like every book that I was assigned, but the whole class was struggling to care. The professor, in a moment of frustration, said, “I want you to love this book because I do.”
Nope. That is not and will never be a good reason for me to love something. Or for me to teach it, frankly. I also love Jose Regio’s “Cantico Negro” but there’s no way I’m teaching a poem that talks about being born of the love between God and the Devil to a class of kids between the ages of seven and twelve.
No, I taught my kids “Mar Português” because I love it for its message. (For its Mensagem. Heh.) I couldn’t just give them a literal translation to build their vocabulary and call it a day. They needed to get the message or they were going to leave class that night thinking that Professora Elizabeth had depressing taste in poetry.
So after the first stanza, after the prayers in vain and weeping mothers, I paused. “Okay, we’re pretty low right now, right?” I asked. “Now see how high we’re about to go.”
Valeu a pena? Tudo vale a pena // Was it worth it? Everything is worth it
Se a alma não é pequena. // If the soul is not small.
Teaching may not be my full-time profession, but it will always be my vocation for moments like this one. I saw the looks on my students’ faces as they understood that this was the turn of the poem.
They knew about the Portuguese discoveries because that’s pretty much the only thing you learn about Portugal in American schools. But they never learned about the costs until they encountered “Mar Português.” They never understood why passing Cape Bojador was hard. It’s just a spot on a map, right?
No. Once you get to Cape Bojador, the winds and currents turn against you. To keep sailing, you can’t follow the coast anymore. I never had to articulate that quirk of geography until my students asked about it. As I explained it to them, I understood something about this poem that I hadn’t before.
If your soul is not small, if you want to achieve greatness, if you want your sacrifices to be worth it, you have to turn away from the familiar and head straight into the unknown. Only then can you make your way to the Cape of Good Hope and beyond.
Never stop learning
I was happy and proud that my students were eventually able to understand why I love this poem so much. When it came time to split up who would be reading “Mar Português” and who would be reading “A Cozinha da Avô” on the last day of class, I had no shortage of volunteers who wanted to read about the price of the Portuguese sea. It warmed my Pessoa fangirl heart.
But beyond my happiness and pride, I am lucky. My students gave me the opportunity to understand this poem better than I ever would have if I hadn’t been their teacher this year. As I’ve transitioned from student to teacher, I love that I’m still learning.