English class was full of surprises yesterday. I sat at a table with four women—two Mexicans and two Guatemalans—and we read a newspaper written for an early reading level. When we read together, each student takes a turn reading a few paragraphs, and I help with pronunciation and explanations of new words or unusual phrases. For example, in a story about the Berlin wall and how Germans are debating how to memorialize it, the phrase "brushed off" was used to describe opinions that were being dismissed. We had to talk about the meaning of that phrase for a minute.
Then we read about how NASA has sent a probe to the moon to take photographs and to measure the temperature, and the probe has revealed that the south pole of the moon is the coldest spot in our solar system. Because there is a large crater there, and possibly a crater within a crater, the area never sees the sun.
The article led to a discussion about the nature of the moon, and suddenly the disparity between the education level of Mexicans and Guatemalans was clear. The Mexican women had been to school in their home towns are now just trying to learn English. The Guatemalan women have had so little education that now they are trying to learn everything. They didn't realize the moon was only rock and had no light source of its own. They wondered if it was the same as the sun. They were surprised when I told them the sun was a star and the moon only reflected the light the sun sends its way—no one had ever told them that before. "Oh, like a mirror," one of them said.
These women are all very bright and are capable of learning. Some of them just haven't had the opportunity. And now that they are adults with children who learn something new every day, they see what they have missed. One of my favorite students, Juana, said her mother never went to school and can't read or write, but she can add and subtract and owns her own business in Guatemala selling used clothing door to door. Juana had four years of school as a child where she learned Spanish. Now that she is relatively proficient in English, she speaks three languages—English, Spanish and her native Guatemalan dialect. Yet, she knows nothing about the moon or the planets or the sun or even the equator.
It was in English that she told me about star poop. When she was a girl, she remembered seeing weird stuff fall down from the sky, and later they would find this jelly stuff in the lakes and ponds. It was like big worms all stuck together, she said, and they weren't allowed to touch it. She used to poke it with a stick, and her parents told her it was star poop. The other Guatemalan woman had a similar story even though she lived in another village. The Mexicans and I sat there in complete dismay, and we had no idea what they were talking about. Star poop, for Pete's sake.
Juana said that people in her village never thought about things like that, never thought to investigate to see what the stuff really was or where it came from. They didn't think beyond what they could see and were not curious. Guatemala has no NASA to send probes anywhere to find out anything, she said.
I promised I would investigate the star poop, and here's what I found: its more common name is star jelly. Scientists don't have a complete explanation for it yet, but they think it is related to meteor showers because it's often found in areas after a meteor has been sighted. It usually disintegrates when it hits ground, but sometimes it can linger in water, which would explain why Juana said they only ever found it in ponds. I can't wait to tell her what star poop is. She'll be glad to know.