By Katie Zimmerman
“Don’t you dare touch her!” Ronaldo firmly exclaimed as he swatted his father’s arm away. I stared in disbelief as my eyes moved from the fierce look on the 12-year-old face to his inebriated father, now stumbling backwards.
That year I had begun training Capoeira, a Brazilian martial arts that involves elements of dance, fighting, instrument playing, singing, and gymnastics. The gym owner and Capoeira instructor, Klecius, granted me 4 scholarships for the children of my choice to train twice a week with him. I thought this could be a great opportunity for kids who lacked self esteem, structure or discipline in their lives, yet still had the ability and desire to learn. They would also have to travel to another town to attend the Monday and Wednesday morning practices, creating another great opportunity to expand their horizons. I immediately thought of Ronaldo.
Everyone called him “Little Ronald,” Standing at 4’ 1” and weighing 75 lbs., he lived up to his nickname well. What he lacked in height, he made up for in spirit. His smile was contagious, and despite his tough home life, he was always upbeat and polite. Along with his short stature, he had a heart of gold and could challenge the Energizer Bunny any day. His ability to run quickly and squeeze in-between people made him highly sought after on the soccer field. His fearless nature was evident through his willingness to perform back flips off of various structures and attempt new risky break dance moves while practicing with the hip hop team.
I thought Capoeira was an excellent opportunity for Ronaldo to express his energy in a positive way while learning discipline, something he was lacking at home. This martial art could be something for him to look forward to and something he could identify with. Klecius, being a 29-year-old who owns his own business and works hard, could be a constant positive role model for him.
I traveled to Ronaldo’s home to discuss his scholarship with his parents. After a 30-minute bus ride and a 20-minute walk down dirt roads, I was greeted with “Teacher!” I looked up just in time to see Little Ronald leap off a fence post and into my arms for his typical death grip bear hug and a nice kiss on the cheek. He continued to cling to me with his heart-breaker grin as we ventured inside his home.
I perched myself on the corner of their broken, ripped and lopsided couch as Ronaldo went to wake his dad up. Several minutes passed before his dad stammered out of the back room, unable to steady his hands enough to successfully tuck in his stained, unbuttoned shirt. He gave up by the time he reached me. Beer coated his heavy breathing as he leaned in and clumsily took my hand. I firmly shook it and was met with resistance as I tried to pull it back. His strong calloused hands were result of years of hard physical labor before he decided it wasn’t worth it and turned to drinking his problems away. I tugged my hand a few more times. My request was ignored while he leaned in closer. Finally losing his balance, he toppled over, falling into me. I clutched his forearm with my left hand and forced our hands apart.
I waited for him to pick himself off the floor and take a seat before choosing my own place, to ensure we would be seated at opposite ends of the room. I settled into the deep corner of the sofa with Ronaldo on my lap, my arms wrapped tightly around him. As I sat there trying to explain that Ronaldo would be the recipient of a Capoeira scholarship, his dad concentrated solely on winking at me from his spot in the opposite corner of the room while slurring, “Ronaldo, your teacher is really beautiful.”
Coming to the quick realization that this conversation was getting me nowhere, I asked Ronaldo to find his mother. A petite, frail woman wearing a wet tattered T-shirt appeared in the back door. She hesitated before entering and never let her eyes stray from her husband as she took a seat beside him. By the time I finished explaining how I would be paying for Ronaldo to take the bus, how I would meet him at the bus station, and how I would attend all of his classes with him, Ronaldo’s mother had still not made eye contact. Ronaldo’s father’s body was now slumped forward with his head between his hands, convincing me that he has passed out.
It was only when I stood up and thanked them for their time that Ronaldo’s dad sprung back to life and swiftly closed the gap between us in two shaky strides. A firm hand was quickly placed on my shoulder, and I was pushed back down. Before either of us could make the next move, Ronaldo swatted his father’s hand away and shoved his chest with all of his 75 lbs. and screamed, “You don’t touch her!”
Pride, sadness and love overwhelmed my heart in that one sentence and gesture. Pride at watching this tiny boy stand up for someone he cared about. Sadness that such a young soul had to defend his teacher from his own father. Love so strong that I ached to take him away from this situation. Not just for that moment, but forever.
As I look back on my favorite memories with Ronaldo through the years, they are all filled with his award-winning smile, energy and happiness. His excitement for life had the ability to so often actually fill my heart with joy, pride and love. He frequently resembled a kid in a candy store, constantly taking everything around him in and enjoying every moment. His wonder at the world often made me reflect on how what God has given me. Being his confirmation sponsor, watching him receive his first belt in a Capoeira ceremony, sitting next to him during his first time being in a professional soccer stadium watching a professional soccer game, and telling him that he would be the recipient of a scholarship to a private English school are all moments that not only will I keep close to my heart, but I often pull them out during days of sadness or self doubt to keep me motivated and inspired. Those few moments he was not giggling or skipping around were only clouded by his concern for others, never himself.
Toward the end of one year’s trip, when students had been preparing for our beach trip for weeks, Ronaldo pulled me aside and said, “Katie, I’m sorry but I can’t go.” Shocked, I inquired as to why, since he had been so excited about traveling and working hard to get to go. He explained that since his brother had been put into jail, he couldn’t leave his mother home alone with his father. Throughout his explanation, he lacked self-pity and failed to complain. He knew at the tender age of 13 something that many adults struggle with daily. Ronaldo understood the importance of family and that others come before our own wants.
The selflessness he showed that day was nothing new for Ronaldo. We were eating lunch one day with six other students when a young boy walked up to the restaurant window, cupped his hands around his face, and smashed his forehead against the glass to see inside.
“Poor guy. He looks hungry,” observed Ronaldo. “Do you think I could ask him if he wants something to eat?” Before I could respond he quickly added, “He can have some of mine, so you don’t have to buy anything else.” I thanked him for being so thoughtful to both I and the little boy and assured him that the boy could have his own meal.
Without embarrassment, Ronaldo headed outside to converse with our mysterious onlooker. We watched the exchange through the window. “He said he didn’t want to come in,” Ronaldo explained simply as he retook his seat. His genuine concern and willingness to sacrifice was inspirational. He wasn’t trying to earn brownie points or cure a guilty conscience. This was evident through his lack of pity and not forcing assistance onto the boy, but merely offering help and then respecting the boy’s preference to stay outside.
After going out to talk to the boy myself, I realized he wasn’t wearing shoes and was unable to enter the building. After discussing his home and personal life, I decided to make his family our next month’s community outreach family. Through that, I got to know this young boy well, and he eventually was able to join our program. It is amazing how one simple thoughtful gesture can ripple into changing someone’s life.
One day I was missing 100 reais, or about $75. Ronaldo made it his personal mission to find the culprit; searching everyone’s bags and making his friends empty their pockets. He would eat breakfast at my house on mornings of Capoeira, and would always be amazed at the food quantity and quality, but would always make sure that I had had enough before he would go back for seconds.
On my last day of my first summer with him, Ronaldo showed up to the program with chest pains. He said he was thinking about me leaving. He had stayed up that night writing me a letter that ended with thanking me for everything, especially the beach trip. He stated that his dream was to now study hard so that he could work for a good company so that he could continue traveling. He ended his beautiful letter with, “you taught me that life is worth it.” In actuality Ronaldo, it was you who showed me all of life’s worth.