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Former exchange student returns after 17 years

Posted Friday, January 13, 2012, at 7:19 PM

Tarcila offers me a piece of the "special cake" that Jewel Berrong made for the Brazilian family.
"Happy Birthday, Grandma!"

Advance art teacher Jewel Berrong has been around the world several times, but in December of 2011, she had a visit from a young lady she had lost contact with for ten years. Catiuscia Matta, her sister Tarcila and Tarcila's 7-year old son Pedro came from Salvador, Brazil to surprise Berrong on her 80th birthday.

"We hadn't talked with her in so long!" said Catiuscia. "If she was dead, I said I didn't want to know, but she's just the same as she was! She hasn't changed a bit! Everything in the house is just where it was, too! The only thing she's changed is her car."

Catiuscia (or Cathy, as she's called--though it's pronounced "Ketchy")--came to America as an exchange student in 1994. When her Michigan foster family didn't work out because of pet allergies, she came to live with Jewel. She graduated from Advance High School in 1995.

Meanwhile, Cathy's sister Tarcila was also an exchange student, staying with Jewel's daughter Sheryl, who lived in Springfield, Missouri at the time. Sheryl now lives in Farmington, and Tarcila insists that she wants to move her family there, too.

Jewel, whom both girls call "Grandma," laughs at how shy Tarcila was and how little English she knew 17 years ago.

"She ordered food by pointing to what she wanted!" Jewel says. "I remember one time when she was trying to tell us, and all she could say was, 'It's a white!' We had no idea that she was trying to order leg of lamb!"

Though Jewel spent three weeks with the girls' family in Brazil in 1996, the friends lost contact with each other over the years. They only recently reunited on Facebook.

"I put Grandma's name in--and it came up!" Tarcila explains.

Jewel was pleased to see that she could immediately recognize Tarcila when she picked her up at the St. Louis airport.

Cathy Matta has had considerable education since she left Advance 17 years ago. She has a law degree and is now studying to pass the required tests to become a judge. She explains that education is very different in Brazil.

"Our high school is very difficult, but our college is easy," Matta says. "It's just the opposite of yours."

Tarcila and Catiuscia explain the courses which are required in Brazilian schools--Portuguese (their native language), English, world history, math, and science. Tarcila's son Pedro is in the second grade and goes to school from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. However, the afternoon is filled with activities which Americans consider extra-curricular--soccer, martial arts and other physical activities.

From what the girls say, the pressure to make good grades and do well in school causes many problems for young Brazilians.

"Suicide is a problem among our youth," Cathy explains.

When asked about the differences between the judicial systems of the U.S. and Brazil, Catiuscia Matta says that the Brazilian system is corrupt.

"Only poor people go to jail," Matta explains. "In our country, there is only upper and lower classes. There is no middle class. The government wants to keep people ignorant of what is going on. Racial discrimination is also very bad."

Despite all the problems, Catiuscia still loves to work with the law. She says that the Brazilian constitution is "always changing," so she will have to constantly study it, and the test to become a judge is "hard."

While the women are in the U.S., they keep in touch with their husbands by "skyping," a form of instant communication over their laptop computer.

Their parents, both dentists in Brazil, used points obtained through their credit cards to save up for the sisters to come to the United States. Pedro was thrilled to get to come with them. He loves American ice cream, hamburgers, pizza, corn, salad, and "Grandma's cake."

"Grandma's cake" is made with yellow cake mix, vanilla pie filling, crème cheese, and crushed pineapple. Whipped topping and cherry pie filling complete "the" cake! So popular is "the" cake that Jewel took the ingredients to Brazil with her in 1996, so she could be sure she had them!

As the interview with these friends comes to an end, it becomes increasingly evident that they will never let another 17 years go by without staying in touch with one another. Thanks to modern technology, future conversations are only a click away!

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It's truly remarkable that Jewel Berrong has continued teaching until she's 80! Most of us lost patience a long time ago!

-- Posted by goat lady on Fri, Jan 13, 2012, at 7:33 PM

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Madeline DeJournett
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Madeline (Giles) DeJournett is the Advance writer for the North Stoddard Countian. A retired high school English/history teacher, she spent 32 years teaching in 5 schools in Missouri and Alaska. These days, she lives quietly with a menagerie of wild and domestic animals on 52 secluded acres in the remote Tillman hills south of Advance. She graduated from Dexter High School in 1960 and Southeast Missouri State in 1964. She can be contacted at advancensc@sbcglobal.net.
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