Monday, May 24, 2010

First Day of School


The Wanderings and Delusions of a Gay Mormon Missionary

“C’mon, we’re going to be late,” I said.

“Don’t worry, don’t worry,” Elder Lindley admonished. “They’re going to understand on the first day.”

“Which room was it again?”


As we passed through the empty corridor, a tenseness crept up on me I’d grown used to from the age of about fourteen—a sort of pressing desire for perfection never fully satisfied as it never could be, but setting me apart nonetheless. Among the uniform classrooms, we picked out the right one and found the rest of District 37-A being introduced to our instructors.


Irmão dos Santos, Irmão Andre, and another uniquely tall man looked expectantly through the pane of glass. Having classmates as roommates turned out to be a blessing and a curse. In this case, they could cover for the fact that both Lindley and I were anything but early risers, but we also knew whether each other had studied, obeyed the rules, etc.

We took the seats closest to the door out of that common combination of courtesy and embarrassment, and in a single moment all was forgiven with a forgiving smile from the instructors and a muffled chuckle from our district, with the exception of Elder Rockefeller for whom the humor was a bit too subtle.

“I’m glad everyone could make it,” the tall man said as some braces peered from his mouth. “I’m Irmão Tomas. I direct the instructors here in the CTM. I’m from Campinas and learned English in the Provo, Utah mission.”

His English was flawless. At least in my mind, it became easier to believe that somehow we’d be able to learn Portuguese by the time we left Brazil.

“I’d like to officially introduce you to your instructors. Irmão Andre is from Recife and Irmão dos Santos from São Paulo mesmo, or rather the city itself.”

“Yeah. I grew up twenty minutes away from here by metro,” added dos Santos. “Tomas was actually in my mission.”

His accent undoubtedly reminded everyone in the room of a Mexican charicature, initially. He spoke slowly and deliberately with a nasal twang which became unnoticeable moments later.

Irmão Andre stood noticeably shorter than the other two at about 5’5”. His pale angular face smirked a bit as he looked around at us. “Just so you know, I served my mission here in São Paulo. I’m half Italian, so I have connections if you cross me.”

Sister Willis passed me a semi-disapproving glance over his comment stereotyping Italians as having ties to the mob. Perhaps she’d picked up on me being the most sensitive soul among the Elders or the one who would pick up on body language such as that.

“I learned my English from companions in my mission, so I expect you to do the same for your Brazilian companions in return for what I will share with you here.”

I was impressed. He’d definitely worked hard to get to where he was at in life and had more than himself and his family in mind.

“Excellent,” Tomas concluded. “Irmão dos Santos will be with you in the mornings and Irmão Andre will work with you in afternoons and evenings, depending on when your PE and service hours fall for a particular day. Take advantage of your time here by speaking your new language and remembering what resources these two men and the other instructors in the CTM are to you.”


Over the next few days, we began to learn the rhythm of the CTM.

The immersion experience began quite early as Irmão dos Santos gave us our first Portuguese lesson. Following a prayer to begin our studies he declared, “That will be the last prayer you hear in English for two years. Now you’re going to learn to do it in Portuguese and never turn back.”

As set, memorized prayers are typically discouraged, he gave us the pieces to say our own prayers. Key phrases like “Nosso pai celestial [Our heavenly father],” “Eu te agradeço … [I thank thee…],” and “nós te pedimos… [we ask thee…].”

Swimming lesson Regardless of how easy the language came to everyone (and even in those first days it was evident who would learn the fastest), everyone experienced some frustration with the language as each of us attempted to fend for ourselves in the new language. It was like tossing a dozen four year olds into the water for their first swim class. Elder Frazier turned pale and took in a deep breaths as he tried to handle the buffeting waves of language. We spoke, we repeated, we used. It all seems so simple now, but in the moment we only conceived terms of impossibility.

At lunch, we sat together in disbelief of what had just happened and what was ahead for us. Going home did not seem like a possibility in any of our minds. We were in it for the long haul, but we were devastated like a team of champions losing the first game of the season in an epic upset. It was a matter of regrouping and resting our minds—the type of rhythm that came with time.

We returned in the afternoon to something more comforting and down to earth. We started learning what we would be teaching in a matter of weeks—the first discussion: Joseph Smith’s first vision, God as our Heavenly Father, etc. The familiarity of principles we’d all been taught from infancy suddenly grounded us and gave us confidence in what lay ahead.


Horizon said...

I am amazed at how good your memory is and marvel at your ability to tell a story. I really don't know how you remember all those details, down to specific conversations.

I remember going through the exact same process, down to sitting near the door for being late. The prayers, the palestras, the people.

Thanks for taking the time to do this series justice.

robert said...

"The familiarity of principles we’d all been taught from infancy suddenly grounded us and gave us confidence in what lay ahead..." It gives me pause to consider the implications here.

A Gay Mormon Boy said...

@Horizon: And at that I always forget something or other. Like the ice cream at the CTM.

At this rate, It'll take longer to write mission memoirs than to actually live it out.

@robert: I think there's a lot tied up in that sentence. It bound us together and gave us some direction as far as learning the language and culture. I think that eventually led some of us to harden ourselves against understanding the people, though, and appreciating their difference.

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