Wednesday, December 20, 2006

¿Cómo Se Díce Biodiesel?

“My name is Ty,” I said, standing in front of about 15 students at Hamlin Middle School in Springfield, Oregon for my first classroom talk.


That was the whispered response of a girl to my left, asking her classmate how to spell my name. I was planning to have an informal chat with them about what energy is (the ability to do work by creating movement, heat, power, etc.) the source of all energy here on earth (the sun), and the difference between renewable (biofuels) and non-renewable (petroleum) containers of that energy. Then I was going to talk about the importance of doing what you love, even though that bit of wisdom is sometimes viewed as cliché or naïve. You know, the old, “follow your dreams speech.”

I was going to do all of this without using the blackboard, because — man — I didn’t want to be one of those dry speakers who use the blackboard. I was going to be a “cooooool” speaker. But in my plans to be cool, I didn’t give much thought to the fact that this was an ESL class. You know, English as a second language, as in, I should probably come prepared to use some of the Spanish that I was so proud to speak fluently six years ago, and I should probably prepare to simplify some of the vocabulary.

Did I prepare to do those things?


So instead of being cool, I grabbed for that dry erase marker like a drowning man going for a log. And while I knew how to say, “el sol es la fuente de toda la energía en la tierra,” among other Spanish phrases, I mostly just butchered that beautiful language while trying to say things like “exhaust” or “engine” or “used cooking oil.”

“It’s the same that your mother uses in the kitchen,” I said in Spanish, with a very gringo-like accent.

Hector laughed, elbowed his classmate and said, “Tu madre.” Should have known that yo’ mama jokes cross all language barriers. At least I was funny, even if by accident. When I tried to be funny on purpose, “I’m a freelance writer … which means I’m poor,” only the teachers laughed.

The motorcoach and the biodiesel samples saved me, along with a young gentleman named Jesus, who took pity on me and asked a lot of questions in either English or very slow Spanish. Thank God for Jesus.

They were really digging on the idea of going outside to see the decorated bus, much more so than watching me scrawl out mundane information on the board, so we went out in the misting rain to have a look.

Lesson one: If you’d like to hold the attention of a 12-year old, it helps to have 34 feet of bright yellow house on wheels. I think they had a good time watching me dance around like a clown in the back-up camera, and opening the slideout without telling anyone was a good trick. Of course, they went right for the television, too. One of those daytime court shows popped on. Several of the kids laughed, “My mom is watching this right now, I bet.”

Back inside, I broke out the biodiesel samples, letting them have a look and a sniff, getting a sensory experience of the difference between biodiesel made from pure Oregon-grown canola, and biodiesel made from used cooking oil. One of them had a very descriptive phrase for the smell of used cooking oil. “Huele de caca de paloma” … smells like pigeon poop. That brought more laughs. Lesson two: If you ever go speak to a middle school class, make sure you can pass around vials of liquid that they can smell and compare to the poop of various animals.

Kidding aside, I think the kids understood two of my biggest reasons for doing this, maybe more than some adults. I wrote down reason one on the board. “Because it’s fun.” Mrs. Torres asked one group of boys huddled around the vials if they knew why I chose to use biodiesel and one of them nailed reason two.

“Because it’s good,” he replied.

When you break it down to the basics, he’s exactly right.

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