Splette's Travel Blog


Me at John Marshall Highschool attending a Spanish class.

Me in class, explaining Hulk's stretchy pants

I’m in Chicago this week, visiting my friend Marissa who is a Spanish teacher at a high school in one of the less nice areas of Chicago. It’s not a ghetto but also not the kind of neighborhood one would necessarily want to live in. Marissa suggested that I could visit her school for a day. That sounded like a great idea, considering my current Spanish skills and the fact that I have never been in a US school. Having had barely three hours of sleep, I had to get up at 6 am. Got a shower and prepared my lunch sandwiches. That alone brought back long lost memories of my school days. We got there early. I did not have to pass through the metal detector but I got a fancy yellow visitors badge and had to sign in. The security personnel (mostly women) seemed much nicer and relaxed than I had expected. The hallways look just like those from any movie involving a US high school, with the usual lockers for students, motivational slogans and countless sport trophies in showcases. The classroom is exclusively used for Spanish classes and was plastered with posters and signs with basic Spanish vocabulary and grammar. And yes, just to make sure the students don’t get confused and think they are in Mexico or Spain, there was also a prominently placed US flag…


Marissa had told me much about the school, the students and the problems in advance. Therefore, I already had some idea of what to expect. The first student arrived 15 min ahead of time. He must have been bored at home. Certainly not representative for the other students I got to meet this day. When the first lesson started only about a third of the students of that class were present. The rest would show up later, one by one, or not at all. It’s been a while since I have been to school but I still have a pretty good idea of what it was like. One of the first things I noticed to be different here at Marshall High was the informal style of the lessons. There was constant talking throughout every lesson, students would walk in and out, with or without permission, or just get up and walk around and start an argument with one of the other students or the teacher. The rule that electronic devices are not allowed during class was ignored altogether. Students would constantly get out their cell phones to text or listen to music. Music seems to play a big role in their lives. One boy in the last row was doing nothing else but listening to music during the entire class. Another student arrived to class wearing a wifebeater. He seemed to enjoy showing off his muscles. Dress rules at Marshall High, however, are enforced strictly and he had to  put on his school uniform shirt. I had never seen any point in school uniforms. Now I do.

The first lesson

The lesson started with Marissa playing a song by Buena Vista Social Club. The task of the students was to make out Spanish words or phrases and to note them down. Few students paid any attention. Afterwards, they were asked which country they believe this song might be from. The first answer was ‘Italy’. Wow. After the little song game, it was time to find out who that new White boy guy is. By the way, all students in Marshall High are Black. And so started my little Q&A session. As Marissa predicted, their first guess would be that I might be her boyfriend. But when I mentioned that I am not from the US, they figured that can’t be right. Some girl attested me to have a Spanish accent. That’s a first, though two people in San Francisco claimed my accent sounds Russian. Either way, I tried to answer all simple questions they asked me in Spanish. Not out of consideration of their basic understanding of the language but rather due to my own poor Spanish skills. “Soy de Alemana” I started. Marissa asked them which country that might be but no one knew the answer (although someone again suggested I might be from Spain). To give them a clue I told them the name of the capital (yes, Berlin). Still, no one had any idea where I might be from. Munich? Hamburg? Cologne? Hopeless. Here is a pro-tip from me to my German readers: If someone doesn’t understand where you are from, just mention Hitler. After my origin was revealed, the kids asked about my work. “Soy biologo” I said. The closest guess to the correct answer was “You are crazy (‘loco’)?”. Oh well, it seemed rather pointless to continue any conversation in Spanish. The follow-up question of how much I earn as a biologist, I was too embarrassed to answer.

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During the rest of the lesson, the class was split in three groups that would rotate to work on different topics. Group One was supervised by Marissa. Group Two was doing an interactive online Spanish class from the BBC: Mi Vida Loca. This is a surprisingly high-quality Spanish course and completely free. Check it out if you are interested in learning Spanish. Group Three had to conjugate stem-changing verbs. Marissa had the bright idea to let me supervise that group. Me? Really? If any of you who ever heard me speaking Spanish is bursting out in laughter right now – I wouldn’t be offended… Verbs aren’t my strongest suit but after going through the very easy exercise once, I was actually be able to instruct the students. The complete lack of interest and the incredibly slow speed of some of the kids was astounding.

Dr. Thomas’ consultation hour

After the  regular lessons that ended around noon and my well deserved sandwich, Marissa had to stick around for a few more hours in case students had questions or needed help with homework. Some of the students were still around. What a great time to ask the new German guy some questions. Marissa officially opened my consultation hour with the words: “Thomas is smart and a scientist. Ask him anything.” Oh well, and so they did. The first question I received concerned the Hulk. Why do the pants of the Hulk don’t rip when he transforms from Dr. Bruce Banner to the giant green monster but the rest of his clothes do? While an interesting thought, I did point out that it’s not a scientific question per se. That, of course, was not a satisfying answer from ‘someone you can ask anything’. So, I made a clumsy attempt of answering and suggested that his pants might be made from a super-elastic material. I do not remember question two and three but it wasn’t long until we arrived at: Do Nazi zombies really exist? My answer was: Most certainly not! and was promptly interpreted as: So you are saying they might, right? The Nazi topic was not over yet. I was not surprised. Do we still worship Hitler in Germany? Generally no, but there are still a few idiots that do. I quickly realized that answer was too complex and when the same question came up again some time later, I answered with a prompt NO! After the obligatory ‘Is there extraterrestrial life on other planets?’ there were also some actually interesting questions. Why is soap slippery? Why do some people have brighter skin/blonde hair when both their parents are all dark. Inheritance! Mendel! I was excited. In a very simple example that I drew on the blackboard I tried to explain dominant and recessive alleles and the difference between genotype and phenotype (while trying to avoid most of that vocabulary and instead explain in simple terms). But there were also other biology questions: How fast do you have to cut into a body to see the blue blood from the veins. I tried to explain that, although the veins do appear blue through the skin and the blood low on oxygen is generally depicted as being blue in biology books, humans don’t actually have any blue blood at all. I think they found my answer a little disappointing. Last but not least came a bunch of sex-related questions. Would I have sex with a girl during her menstruation? I truthfully answered: No.

That was my exciting first day at school. I learned a lot and had a great day. What is sad, though, is that very few of these kids will have any chance of a good career in their future…



  • Comment by doktor c — May 6, 2012 @ 12:05 pm

    Dein Spanish-Lesson ging wohl gut, aber Biologie anscheinend noch besser! I was rolling while reading this. Given the Splett-context.

  • Comment by Klemens — May 12, 2012 @ 5:33 am

    Hi Splette! Ich habe mich köstlich amüsiert. Danke! 🙂

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