Although Aztec children didn’t go to school as quickly as most kids today, they learned a lot from their parents as they grew. By the young age of five, boys carried firewood and accompanied their fathers to the marketplace. The boys watched their parents exchange goods in the market. The market was also a place for boys to meet new people and learn how to behave around both adults and other children. At the age of five, their mothers taught girls how to weave cotton. In their preteen years, boys learned to fish while girls perfected their spinning and cooking skills.
Aztec parents valued hard work and humility. As their children’s first teachers, they tried to pass on these values. The Codex Mendoza, which was painted few years after the Spaniards arrived, says that parents “instructed and engaged them [children] in personal services…this was so that…they did not spend their time in idleness, and to avoid the bad vices that idleness tends to bring.”
The lessons of their parents helped boys endure their formal schooling, which for wealthy sons began at fifteen. They entered a school run by Aztec priests called the calmecac. Most of the boys who attended this school would become priests, though they occasionally chose other professions. Government jobs, for example, required an elite education. Physical work was part of the curriculum. In the mornings, boys swept the temple, collected firewood, and worked in the fields. They fasted and went on pilgrimages to satisfy their gods. Afternoons were devoted to the study of history, astrology, writing, and the law. They also learned some fighting techniques because priests often accompanied soldiers into battle.
Most Aztec boys, including commoners, attended the telpochcalli where they learned military skills. These boys also spent time doing physical work so they would be able to endure battles. One popular task was increasing the load of firewood a boy carried on his back to see if he would be able to carry the shield and other items he needed during a battle. Martial arts were also taught.
Teenage girls continued their education at home, though some had a public role as priestesses, called cihuatlamacazqui. Young priestesses were taught their temple duties and presided over religious ceremonies. Women were essential to certain Aztec religious festivals. During the ceremony of Quecholli, priestesses dedicated to the goddess of corn dressed in feathers and painted their faces. They sang and paraded through the streets, tossing handfuls of corn into the crowds. The seeds were signs of a good harvest in the coming year. Most girls, however, were married around the age of fifteen. They married young men who had finished their formal education.