What is education? To some, to many, to me, it used to mean no more than a desk and a textbook. Education did not extend beyond the classroom. It did not extend past several hours a week on the source praying for that sacred green A.
But with two plane rides equaling 20 hours in length (and a seven-hour layover in New York), everything changed for me.
I arrived in Israel, the land of my ancestors, with the hopes of having a good time, and making some new friends. Within five minutes of meeting my core studies teacher, I knew I would be getting a lot more.
An affable Scotsman named Aubrey Isaacs greeted the class with an excited smile and a promise. This quaint man wore battered Nikes with untied shoelaces that dangled on the floor, a pair of worn trousers, and a neon green t-shirt. His large, rounded glasses and scraggly beard gave him a more scholarly appearance.
He spoke with a thick Scottish accent, and left the “t” off most words.
Aubrey pointed to the grade system he had written on the white board: 20 percent quizzes, 20 percent tests, 15 percent homework, and so on.
“This here is nawt whas important. We have to do this for school, but iss not wha couns. Wha you learn here,” Aubrey tapped his head, “That’s whas imporan.”
Every other day (excluding Saturday) we had class; on the days in between, we had class, too, but it was a different kind of class. On those days we took tiyuls (small hikes that are the equivalent of field trips).
Five days after our arrival in Israel, our class took its first tiyul. We hiked in the Israeli foothills to a place called Tel Gezer. At the peak of our hike, we had our first geography “lesson.”
From our vantage point we could clearly see the beautiful rising and falling landscape of Israel. Aubrey gave us the name of the five different regions we could see, noting each region’s individual characteristics.
Then Aubrey did something strange: He lined up five students according to height, each representing a different region — the tallest kid was the mountains, the shortest was the plains. He then grabbed the jerry can and dumped a different amount of water on each kid’s head, illustrating the amount of rainfall each region gets.
That was geography class.
We continued walking to start our history “lesson.” We were at the site of an archaeological dig aimed at exploring the different civilizations that have inhabited Tel Gezer. After a short amateur archaeological search of our own for pottery pieces, we moved on to see the remnants of the once-prosperous civilizations that inhabited Tel Gezer.
Our class sat at the temple where these ancients once sat. Aubrey volunteered three girls to dance, and had boys toss Monopoly dollars at them to depict the attraction of certain religions.
We explored their water system, a 50-meter-deep cave that had been dug beneath the city. We stood on battlegrounds where thousands of lives had been lost, and we sat on the remains of the complex gate system that was used to protect the city.
Finally, we assembled at the exact point where the most important find of the archaeological dig had been found: a child’s homework assignment, right where I was sitting. Three thousand years ago, a child had a writing assignment portraying the harvest months. And here I was, 3,000 years later, studying in the exact same spot — only in a much different way.
I was not learning history. I was living it.
Education. Beyond the desk, beyond the textbook. With 20 hours on a plane, I went from sitting in school and pining for freedom, idolizing those blaring red numbers and praying for them to bestow their good fortune upon me, to standing outside with the wind at my back and the sun on my face, walking, talking, and, most importantly, learning.
Since I’ve returned, I sit and stare until my eyes recede into the back of my skull. I sleep, consciously registering the sonorous voices at the front of the room with lessons sure to be stored in the “I don’t care” section of my brain.
How can I remember?
Away, I walked, and I talked, I experienced, I loved, I learned, I listened.
How can I forget?
With so much emphasis on education in our country, who am I, with one good experience, to badmouth my school, teachers, and system. What do I know?
What do I know?
Two things, at least one for sure. One is that I don’t know much.
And two, I know what education is.