This week when I called home I could hear my 4-year-old nephew in the background waking up from his nap. Sidetracked from hunting for his mom, he first sat down and colored a picture of Abraham and Sarah, receiving occasional clarifications on the story from my older sister. Then he asked something of my younger sister, which launched a lesson on telling time, complete with ripping the clock off the wall and spinning the hands around. The hour hand concept was easily mastered; when he got to the minute hand, however, counting by fives proved too difficult. This launched a consultation between the three of us on how to set up a number line so he could practice skip-counting until it was easy. Then he took a turn talking to me and told me about the clocks, along with the dirt pile in the garden and the monsters on Sarah's computer game.
Nobody wrote a lesson plan or plotted months in advance that today was the day to tell time. Nobody bought a fancy curriculum or handy little classroom gizmos. Nobody handed him a worksheet and said, "Finish this or get in trouble." Nobody forced him to take a test. A little boy wanted to know something, so he asked someone who knew, and they taught him. That's how education is supposed to work.
That's how I remember it working, growing up. I remember my oldest brother teaching me addition in the car. A friend of my sister's showing my four-year-old fingers how to follow the notes of "First March." Sitting on my dad's lap at six and trying to fathom the mysteries of algebra at the same time as my 13-year-old brother. Mom using long-lost leftovers as a lesson in microbiology. My grandfather deciding his two middle grandchildren needed lessons in surveying, shed painting, and tractor driving (lessons at which my younger brother outstripped me as far as I did him at spelling).
And it wasn't long before I was returning the favor: editing my mom's letters so they would be less polemic and more persuasive; lecturing at the dinner table on the evils of government intervention; training my youngest brother in reading and math. Teacher and student, training and practice, were not fixed categories, but based on the realities of the moment.
Education doesn't take fancy curriculum or years of training or a set class of "teachers" who have all the answers. It takes people living and working together, sharing their excitement about the things they know and curiosity about the things they don't. We've got scrap paper, pens, a Bible, two dictionaries, a library card, and we think the world is a fascinating place. We're all set, Baby, just as soon as you are ready.