I’ve finally emerged after four weeks of classes at the New York Botanical Gardens. With quite a substantial amount of reading, homework assignments and trekking to the Bronx, I am done with my first course. And yes, I say first course because we all know that the Fundamentals of Gardening class Jon so graciously gifted me for our anniversary isn’t going to be the only one. It’s fundamentals after all, which has only encouraged me to know more about how plants flourish, how to prune, and all that interesting science stuff that happens in a compost pile. Though I haven’t yet decided what my next course should be (and at a few hundred dollars a pop I might wait until spring), I know that I want to continue, perhaps even getting an official certificate in gardening! It’s a long way away (a hundred plus hours of class commitment) but it has reminded me how good it is to be back in school.
It’s been a long time since I’ve learned in a traditional setting of lectures, homework and exercises. And when I first started learning this fall, with a two-person private French class, I was surprised and delighted by how different it was. I actually enjoyed what I was learning. It wasn’t forced or because I had to do well. I was engaged because the subjects were passions.
Of course, that seems obvious, but it hasn’t always been clear for me.
Let’s start at the beginning. Young Eva was a studious, straight-A, honor-roll kind of square, and yet she was a good learner because she had to be — because her sisters were. As the youngest of a handful of exceptional ladies, I didn’t have the audacity to be the poor student, and worse, I didn’t have the independent point of view to actually disrupt the status quo. So I got good grades. But I didn’t really care. I took classes because I was supposed to, not because I actually wanted to. It was how I went through much of my teenage years: going through the obligatory motions, unsure if I would ever really feel for learning the way others seemed to.
It turns out that I was just learning the wrong things in the wrong way. I’m a visual and emotional learner, so anytime I was assigned a project based homework, a creative historical endeavor, or a heart-wrenching book, I did well — but more importantly, I loved the work. I remembered the specifics of a war because of the pain it left behind. I excelled at building dioramas of theaters or writing faux newspapers during Egyptian times. I was determined to make the most hilarious and informative short films about George III and Freud. I channeled whatever learning I could into the most exciting way I knew how: creativity. Creative learning was the easiest way to get me to do homework.
And now, I’ve done all that back work. I’ve figured out what things I really like, and they are entirely different from what was expected of me growing up. I enjoy math as an exercise, but I don’t want to be calculating. I am good at building things, but I don’t want to be an engineer. I was terrible with grammar my whole life (still am) but I love to write. I like to calculate for art, engineer creativity, and write with my heart rather than a grammar guide. And that’s okay, it’s only taken me many years to figure out.
So when I went back to school to learn French, I was surprised that I was scared. Scared because I really cared and scared because I didn’t know how I would be in a learning setting again. School had zapped a lot of creative joy out of me, from its dry memorizations to the academic readings that would make me go cross-eyed with boredom, and I didn’t want that to be the way I learned French. Grueling and painful. I wanted it light, joyful, and encouraging.
And it is.
Even more so than I thought. But don’t be fooled. After that first day of French when my perfectly Parisian teacher spoke entirely in her mother tongue, I left class feeling overwhelmed, perplexed and terrified. So much of my childhood was based on being a good student — as one would expect with two teachers as parents — that the thought of not being good at learning nearly gave me a panic attack. It’s no surprise that with English as my only language, learning a new one would be hard. Especially as a visually learner. I need to see something. But language isn’t like that. It’s made with the voice and heard with the ear. So I’m having to adapt to a different kind of learning, one I can study for, but one that pushes me to do better. And I love it. Absolutely. I look forward to French class like a child looks forward to summer. I want to get better. I want to finish my French citizenship application. I want to speak as eloquently as Frédérique does and discover where in Paris she buys her incredibly unique jewelry!
And then, there’s my gardening class. Housed in the renowned institution of the New York Botanical Gardens, the hallways buzz with professional gardener experts, high-designing landscape artists, and exacting botanical painters. It’s a quiet place full of creative energy where the people come together for one reason: a collective love of plants. So, no, it’s not just a class. It’s an obsession. For everyone. When I saw a male teacher wearing a cat shirt and carrying a tray of moss my heart burst. When I found out my class included a wheelchair bound woman with a nurse, I was overjoyed with the inclusiveness. And then when my teacher announced we would be graded, I nearly fainted.
After all these years of delighting in a life free of tests or quizzes, studying for a final, and avoiding multiple choice questions (the dread of my life), I was going to be graded? My stomach turned. It was different though, this time being told my work was going to count for something mattered. I wanted to do well, I wanted to describe how to prepare a chamomile lawn (ten points of my entire grade!) because I actually wanted to know how to do it and do it well. Though I likely wont be a professional gardener, I want to know how to be the best plant grower I can be.
And that’s the difference with learning this time, the topics are passions. I hang onto the words of the soil lectures, try to apply the pruning lessons to my lemon tree, and conjugate new French verbs I’m curious to know. I foolishly stumble over pronunciations. I ask a lot of questions. The interest and eagerness are new for me and while not every aspect of learning is fun (I’m looking at you snooty, English, tree-pruning author) the topic alone gets me through. I’ve reframed the way I think about learning. It’s no longer a thing I must do, it’s what I want to do. And that has made all the difference!
Have you taken classes since being out of school? How has learning changed for you? And for those of you who follow along on my Instagram Stories and are wondering about my gardening final, I got a 41/40! He gave me a bonus point because of my thoroughness and it’s reinvigorated my classroom confidence