By Michael Marrone
The week before the solar eclipse, I decided to use the event as a focus of instruction for my class. I teach English as a second language to adult refugees.
Over the summer, my class numbered 11 students, five from Congo and one each from Somalia, Sudan, Burundi, Eritrea, Sierra Leone and Burma. The youngest was 24, the oldest 55. Except for the student from Burma – who had never set foot in class before fleeing her country in middle age – they all possessed some level of education, much of it obtained in the refugee camps of Tanzania and Kenya.
I began by making sure everyone knew the central players in an eclipse: the sun, moon and earth. Next came the more abstract concept of “orbit.” For this, our Burundi student played the sun, and I ran circles with a 1950s-era globe in one hand and a plastic lid representing the moon in the other. This elicited a few blank stares, then laughter and cries of, “I see, teacher!”
We then explored how a small object can block something much larger if viewed from the right perspective. For this, we called the globe the sun, our thumbs the moon and ourselves the earth. “Which is bigger, the globe or your thumb?”
“Globe, teacher, globe.” Dumb question – but look! Close one eye and bring your thumb in from arm’s length, and, voilà – the Congolese speak French, on top of Swahili and at least one tribal language – the moon completely blocks the sun.
Finally, I turned on the overhead projector to demonstrate the phenomenon further with the plastic lid. I had just begun to cast the “moon’s” shadow on the screen, when B, a 30-something mother of five from Congo, cried out, “Teacher, teacher, I know this!”
She then proceeded to describe in remarkably resourceful English how, years ago, her father had filled a pot with water, placed it on the ground of their village and invited her young self to gaze at the image on the surface. B doesn’t remember exactly what she saw. What she remembers is how excited her father was to make the vision of a partially obscured sun available to his daughter.
Standing in the sharp light of the projector, I knew how her father felt. I was the father who woke his daughter in the wee hours so she could witness a lunar eclipse, or lie out in our backyard to be awed by the Leonid meteor shower.
And then in the next instant, I thought, “Wait. Is that safe?” B has bad eyes. It’s a thing in our class, something we all knew. She often rubbed her eyes and pushed her paper away in frustration, and I was forever prodding her to see a doctor.
A quick internet check confirmed that a solar eclipse reflected in water is dangerous. Enough ultraviolet light can be reflected to cause serious damage.
I warned my students not to use the method B had described, at the same time careful not to suggest that her father might be responsible for her vision problems. Who knows? It was decades ago.
My daughter lives in Pittsburgh now. She texted me just past peak of the eclipse to say she had borrowed a pair of solar glasses and caught a great view. She knew I would be watching, and wanted to share the experience.
Years from now, I might not remember what I saw looking up through my protective glasses, but I will remember that text. And when classes resume, I will push B a little harder to have her eyes examined.