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Coursus interruptus

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In a world where everyone is an expert at something, my lack of expertise in any one area is a problem. I'm surrounded by professionals: doctors, educators, curators, software gurus. In lieu of grad school, which seems really hard and expensive, continuing education is my only hope.

            When the two-color continuing-ed brochures arrive in the mail each season, I feel a frisson of anticipation imagining my future: Finally I'll be an expert at something. I'll have a skill, a special talent, something that only I can bring to the table.

            I'll become a personal coach! Sell colorful glass beads that I've made! Write a best-selling book in just three weeks!

            There's just one little obstacle standing between myself and greatness --- I quit every class I take.

            I arrive at the community center or pottery studio or martial arts dojo full of energy. Then, inexplicably, I lose interest. I don't always quit on the first day. It usually happens in the third or fourth class. And this isn't just an occasional thing. I'm a serial quitter.

Bad luck and bad judgment prematurely ended my run as a prodigy in high school when I took a class at Harvard. I realized I was way over my head when a) I had no idea what the professor was talking about and b) the grad student who made a pass at me turned out to be married.

            Lesson 1: Look for a ring.

            After college I moved to Washington, DC. I signed up for an intro German class, and my high hopes for fluency met the harsh reality of having to do an inordinate amount of memorizing and studying. That, and the class was filled with ringers --- State Department whizzes and diplomats. While I stuttered "Ich habe eine frage," ("I have a question..."), the others held a lively discussion, in German, about Mozart's "Die Zauberflöte."

            Lesson 2: Das gute bier hilf mir mehr alles ärtze in der welt. ("This good beer helps me more than all the doctors in the world.")

            Sometimes crazy teachers were the problem. After a year on the waiting list I finally got into a sign-language class at the Smithsonian. The teacher kicked off the class with her own twisted take on American Sign Language's lack of formal past and future tenses. "Deaf people," she pronounced, "can't conceive of the past or future." In shock, I walked out.

            Lesson 3: Flipping the bird was all the sign language I needed for that class.

            Another psycho teacher ended my career as a world-class chef before it even started. I was living in Philadelphia at the time and was thrilled to be taking an appetizer class from a local celebrity chef. During the second class --- Vietnamese Jumbo Prawn Spring Rolls with Chili Mint Dipping Sauce --- the chef grew enraged at another student and, waving a cleaver, chased her out of the test kitchen while screaming about proper knife care.

            Lesson 4: Never use a fancy knife to pick garlic out of the press.

            I can't blame the teacher for what happened in my life-drawing class in Nashville, Tennessee. Every week, as soon as the model disrobed, I started to shake and the charcoal jiggled all over the paper. Who's psycho now? Was I having some bizarre reaction to seeing naked people? Much later, I realized the jitters were a reaction to the iced tea we all swilled to stave off the studio's heat.

            Lesson 5: Southern sweet tea has one cup of sugar per glass; stick with ice water.

            When I moved to Rochester I signed up for a fiction-writing course, dreaming of literary greatness. My class had 15 minutes to write a story about someone swimming across a lake. Pens flew all around me. Why swim out into a lake? I wondered. For exercise? Were there other possibilities?

            Time to read our stories. The first woman imagined a murderer swimming from the scene of the crime. The teacher crowed, "Screenplay!" and I stared longingly at the door. One man's essay about nature would've sent Thoreau packing. "Such imagery!" the teacher said, wiping away a tear. I slipped halfway off my chair. My turn to read? I hit the ground running.

            Lesson 6: Forget fiction; next time, try a poetry class.

Why do I keep quitting classes? Because I can. As I pry my children's fingers off the doorjamb every morning and push them onto the schoolbus, I laugh a fiendish laugh. Freed from the strapped-on feedbag of mandatory school attendance, I approach my own education like a big, wonderful buffet, tasting what appeals to me and leaving when I've had enough.

            At this rate, I'll never become an expert at anything. Or, at least, I won't become an expert at these things. I might discover a hidden talent in a B&W photography class at the Genesee Center for the Arts. And, with the right training, I could learn how to do voice-over work. It might not be a bad idea to get certified in Reiki, once I find out what it is.

            I can't wait until the fall course catalogues arrive.

In This Guide...

    Go learn your lesson

    If America is the Invisible University, Rochester is surely one of the institution's biggest colleges. Look hard enough and you can probably find a course in nearly any imaginable subject, night or day.

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