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Shadowed by fear and violence: One student’s story from a Rio slum

Since 2003, PBS has followed children from different countries as part of the documentary series "Time for School." In this second installment, hear the story of Jefferson Narciso from Rocinha, one of Rio de Janeiro's poorest and violent neighborhoods. Shy and smart, Narciso embarks on a journey to a better life through education that is plagued by the fears of others.

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  • JEFFERSON NARCISO:

    I dream that everything is good. That my mother buys her house, that my sisters and brother have the things they want. I dream about becoming a soccer player, about finishing school.

  • TAMARA TUNIE, NARRATOR:

    Five-year-old Jefferson Narciso is absorbed in the important activities of childhood…but his mother, Leslie, has a lot on her mind.

  • LESLIE NARCISO:

    I worry a lot, because sometimes he disappears. He goes upstairs to play with his kite, and if I don't go up and grab him, he never comes home.

  • TAMARA TUNIE, NARRATOR:

    Raising four young children alone in Rocinha, Rio's biggest favela, or slum, Leslie has cause to worry.

    Drug dealing is a daily reality, which Leslie worries could derail her children from the right path.

    Leslie's low income qualifies her for an innovative program called Bolsa Familia. It provides families with a monthly stipend as long as children stay in school.

    It's paid off for the country – 95 percent of Brazilian children – enter primary school – and it's paid off for Jefferson too.

  • LESLIE NARCISO:

    What did you do in school today?

  • JEFFERSON NARCISO:

    A drawing.

  • LESLIE NARCISO:

    A drawing and what else? Did you dance in school? No?

  • LESLIE NARCISO:

    I want them to try the things that I never did in life…have the freedom I didn't have. I want them to play because I couldn't play. I want them to enjoy, to play, to study.

  • JEFFERSON NARCISO:

    When I'm going to school, sometimes there are gunshots, so I hide in a shack or I stop in some other place.

  • TAMARA TUNIE, NARRATOR:

    In Rocinha, violence between gangs, police, and paramilitary groups has been escalating.

  • JEFFERSON NARCISO:

    When I see the police I get a little scared because they could shoot at a drug dealer, and a stray bullet could come at me.

  • ELIANE SOARES:

    School is a second home for the kids; for some it's a first. Here they can count on learning and affection.

    It's a refuge for them, so they can feel connected to a moment of peace and pleasure.

    On the first day of school, this little boy, Jefferson, looked at me, a new teacher, a little scared and shy.

  • ELIANE SOARES:

    Generally the kids are very hyper and never stop. But Jefferson is different. He sits in his little spot and waits for my orders.

  • ELIANE SOARES:

    Is it sweet, salty or bitter?

  • JEFFERSON NARCISO:

    It's salt.

  • ELIANE SOARES:

    What I find interesting is that he already knows how to read. Generally this doesn't happen. Most of the kids aren't reading fluently.

  • TAMARA TUNIE, NARRATOR:

    Three years later, Jefferson is doing well at school but as he gets older, the dangers of Rocinha worry his mother Leslie even more.

  • LESLIE NARCISO:

    Like any mother, it scares me that my children are growing up and living in this kind of world.

    I'm afraid that my daughter will become a whore and that my son will become a drug dealer when he grows up.

    We live in a slum, so we see these things all the time. Jefferson has a friend three years older than him who is now a drug dealer.

    So I say to him, "If you choose to follow his path, you'll have two options – death or prison."

  • TAMARA TUNIE, NARRATOR:

    To keep Jefferson off the streets, his mother has enrolled him in a church-run afterschool program for underprivileged kids, located outside of Rocinha, in one of downtown Rio's more affluent neighborhoods.

  • MARIA JOSE DE FERREIRA:

    I think he gets what I do, what I teach him and he finishes everything really fast!

    He's no slacker. It's very rewarding. It's very emotional for me.

  • JEFFERSON NARCISO:

    When I grow up, I'll go to school to be a math teacher. When I finish my studies, I'll become a soccer player.

  • TAMARA TUNIE, NARRATOR:

    But suddenly there is a major setback. The school administration, which skipped Jefferson a grade, has now decided to hold him back a year.

    The principal fears he's not mature enough for the influences he'll encounter in middle school.

  • MARCIA HELENA FIGUEIREDO DE BARROS:

    He's really smart and responsible, but I think it's going to be harmful putting Jefferson, so young, around children so much older than him. That's when they usually drop out.

  • JEFFERSON NARCISO:

    My grades are good. I studied a lot. It really makes me sad.

    Everybody graduated except me. I just watched it.

  • TAMARA TUNIE, NARRATOR:

    It's Christmas 2014, and over the past five years Jefferson has stayed in school. Now he's in 10th grade and is looking at life with surprising realism.

  • JEFFERSON NARCISO:

    I've changed a lot. I used to dream about being a soccer player.

    Now I'm more concerned about helping my mother than playing soccer.

  • TAMARA TUNIE, NARRATOR:

    After many years, his mother Leslie has made the decision to move out of the Rocinha favela to a safer neighborhood.

  • LESLIE NARCISO:

    The drug dealing drove me out of Rocinha.

    I'm living, at my brother's house in Piabeta.

  • TAMARA TUNIE, NARRATOR:

    She enrolled Jefferson into a better school, but the classes were harder, and he started in the middle of the year. Jefferson couldn't keep up and now has to repeat 10th grade.

  • JEFFERSON NARCISO:

    At first, I was upset that I failed but now I've accepted it and I'll try to pass next year.

  • TAMARA TUNIE, NARRATOR:

    But even if he does pass, Jefferson will join the military for a year, as Brazilian men are required to do at age 18.

    Jefferson would then have two years of high school left, if he went back.

    Despite the enormous progress Brazil has made over the past 20 years, one third of Brazil's secondary school students do not graduate.

  • JEFFERSON NARCISO:

    In the future, I want to give my mother a house, to live with my siblings, to be a good person, and I hope to continue on this track.

    I plan to go to college one day. My future is not guaranteed. But the only way to guarantee my future is by going to school.

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