Continuing my education before it starts …

Last Wednesday was my last class in Documentary Photography at an extension school, or, what I like to call “school at night for grown-ups.” Yes, I took a course in a “continuing education” program before I’ve even begun my formal education in photography, and I adored it.

However, the first night of the class, a chilly evening in late January, Tyler had to force me out the door.

The terrifying thought pounding through my head was this: “I’ve already paid tuition for my full-time program in the fall. What if I don’t like photography as much as I think I do and this little class proves it to me and ruins everything?”

I can be a bit insane, and it didn’t turn out to be an issue in the slightest. Tyler has since taken many opportunities to say, “I told you so.”

Now, extension schools, continuing ed programs, community center classes, they all have one wonderful element in common: anyone can sign up. And when education is democratized like that, everyone does sign up, and classes contain some of the most amusing amalgamations of people I have ever encountered.

There are always some repeat characters, no matter what class you are taking. One is the The Crazy Person. You can rely on this person to say absurd things (and never stop talking), not follow the assignments correctly, and have a wonderful collection of peculiar personal habits as well (strange tics, style of dress, irregular hygiene). In a novel-writing class I once took, The Crazy Person was a balding middle-aged man whose stories were completely incomprehensible and always detailed obscure mechanical processes in some way. In the photography course, it was an older woman whose grasp of reality was tenuous, at best. She photographed things like a puppy in a suitcase surrounded by stuffed animals and provided solid entertainment every week.

Another character is the I Just Graduated From High School Kid and Am Taking Classes Here Instead of Going to College. Now, this can be a smart educational move; extension schools attached to universities usually have their full-time professors teach classes; you can get a quality education for about a hundred times cheaper. However, these inexperienced students ask stupid questions and really drag everyone else down. But we all put up with them because they are invariably lovely in their fresh-faced naiveté, and remind us all of ourselves, X number of years ago.

All in all, the extension school classroom is a mine of riches and a minefield; anything could happen, anyone could be there.

My class wasn’t perfect, and I don’t think I want to be a professional news journalist (the documentary of James Nachtwey, “War Photographer,” scared the bejesus out of me, and not only because he has a creepy personality), but it did teach me some very valuable lessons. The big one was: How To Be Brave.

Our weekly assignment was the Photo-a-Week, referred to as the PAW. Our directive: take an interesting photo of a person within six feet, in public, without asking permission.

That is harder than it sounds.

And so, I present to you, one of my first PAWs, taken on the 66 bus from Brookline to Harvard Square. The only reason I was brave enough to do this in an enclosed space with no escape route was because I’d had some wine with friends beforehand, and alcohol makes me courageous (and talkative!):

I’m pretty sure she wants to kill me.

I pretended to be innocently fiddling with my camera rather than taking photographs, but I don’t think my act was very persuasive. Luckily, she couldn’t move without waking her partner, and I was able to make my getaway unscathed, many stops later. It was a close one!

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