When Revere High School (RHS) teacher Sarah Chaves opened her e-mail during a planning period last month, it was the happiest moment of her life – yet it recalled one of the lowest points of her life.
Chaves, 26 and a lifelong resident of Revere, found out that she had been awarded the prestigious Fulbright Scholarship to study in the Azores (Portugal) next year. She is believed to be only one of two Fulbright Scholars ever from Revere (the other being former Revere firefighter John Moschella) and the first ever from RHS. It was a momentous occasion for her, but it recalled the tragic and untimely death of her father, Lino, in a car crash in the Azores the summer after she had graduated from RHS.
It recalled it because her father’s death was the center of her proposal. She will, in fact, be dedicating the 2015-2016 school year to writing her memoirs about her father’s death, and also studying how people who have experienced tragic death in their families grieve in the Azores.
“When I was 18, two weeks before my freshman year in college, we had taken a family vacation to my parent’s home in the Azores,” said Chaves. “Three days before we were supposed to leave and come back to Revere, my father got into a bad car accident and died. I had always been interested in writing, whether poetry or short stories. When this happened, I knew I was going into college for writing. It was obvious I was going to have to tell this story because my father’s voice had been cut short. I needed to tell his story…This study is going to be for me to write my memoirs, the memoirs about my father’s death.”
Chaves went on to study writing at Emerson College, and actually began applying for the Fulbright Scholarship in her senior year there. Following her time in college, the former RHS student landed a job teaching Freshman English at RHS. She has been there three years now, and every year has applied once again for the Fulbright – knowing that her odds at getting a grant to study in the highly competitive European field were pretty long.
“There were two grants given for Portugal and I was one of them,” she said. “When you’re fighting for a spot in any European country for a Fulbright, it’s ridiculous odds compared to countries in Africa or South America. I knew I was in over my head. Honestly, it’s the persistence and resilience. They had to be saying, ‘This girl again. She’s applying again?’ When I found out, it was shock and disbelief that it finally came true.”
That application was also highly supported by her former teachers at RHS, and now her current colleagues. None was so influential for her, she said, as English teacher Mary Ellen Dakin. Dakin, in fact, wrote her letter of recommendation in the expansive Fulbright application.
“I’ve simply never known a young woman like Sarah,” wrote Dakin. “She is an exception among the exceptional. Her intelligence, her talent, and her depth of understanding have been forged in a crucible of experience. Accept her and you accept the opportunity to influence the career of a 21st century American author.”
Chaves said she will arrive in the Azores, which is a group of islands belonging to Portugal, this coming October.
When she gets there, she will begin a rigorous program of recalling what happened to her family – how they grieved, how they struggled in so many aspects, and how they came out on healed on the other side of the grieving process.
However, the monumental study won’t just be about how Chaves and her family mourned.
“I didn’t just want this scholarship to be about making a memoir of my experiences because I think grief is universal,” she said. “I’m not only going to be conducting workshops for people in the Azores who have experienced grief, but also I’m going to be interviewing them and writing the stories of people in the Azores who have experienced grief and how they have dealt with it. I will be putting their stories in with mine, as well.”
In particular, Chaves will be contrasting the two cultures of Portugal and America – something she has often done in her life as one born in America to parents from another country.
“I am Portuguese/American and I have found that I have these two cultures clashing when it comes to grief,” she said. “One thing is acceptable in American culture, but that same thing is not acceptable in Portuguese culture…In America, we grieve on the fast track. If someone dies, we grieve for awhile but we’re expected to get over it. The fact that we have grief periods spelled out in contracts shows that…Portuguese culture has no expiration date; you grieve as long as you want and you grieve very openly. You don’t grieve behind closed doors…”
“Meanwhile, Portuguese culture is so communal and so familial that if you want to have your alone time – you’re unable to do so,” she continued. “You’re forced into religious traditions about how to handle the death that you may not want to participate in. My mom wore black for five years, but not because she wanted to, but because she felt she needed to.”
Chaves was a 2007 graduate of RHS and attended the old Whelan School and the Garfield Middle School. She has two brothers, Lino Chaves and Lucas Chaves, and is the daughter of Maria Chaves.
She said she will come back from her experiences ready to share them with her freshmen English students at RHS – not so much in the form of an assignment, but in the form of an inspirational testimony.
“It’s definitely a story I really want to tell my students about – to just not give up and to be resilient and stubborn,” she said. “Even though I had all this support behind me, in the end it was only me who believed in absolutely going after it. Dreams do come true, even for a little girl from Revere.”
Seth Daniel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org