I was standing for the first time in front of 40 people, all of them waiting patiently for my two-minute speech. From my vantage point, all those eyes were an ominous blur, until I spotted, over to the left, familiar eyes and a familiar smile.
"Hey, I know that guy. He greets me at the door every night and compliments my cooking and strokes the color onto my self-image." Instinctively I smiled back and launched into my speech.
That happened in a public speaking course I took with my husband. We had many happy surprises during those 14 weeks, not because we were turning into William Jennings Bryans but because we were turning into a stronger couple. From beginning to end, we were sure we were getting more out of the course than the students who'd left their spouses at home. After a while, the new skill wasn't as important as our just being together among new challenges, revelations and people.
Taking that course wasn't something we'd each have done on our own. My husband's job requires little oratory and mine none at all. But when we both happened to pause over the same ad, it seemed an omen. Going together might be fun. It would be like a night out with beneficial side effects.
In the future we won't wait for accidents to reveal our mutual interests, or worry whether we really need certain knowledge. Taking courses together offers so many perks for a married couple we'll do it for its own sake.
We might learn to sing together and duet in the bedroom. We could take up carpentry; he'll pound and I'll saw. I'm thinking about museum courses and he's interested in advertising. We've broken the dinner-and-movie, party-or-play routine of the typical adult social life, and we've struck gold.
There's a strong practical reason for taking a course with your spouse. It gets you there. Research on why adults drop out of adult classes in such large numbers shows that "lack of companionship in the learning process," reports the Journal of Adult Education, is the chief reason. "Efforts to encourage those attending all adult classes to bring a friend, or even better some member of the family," says the journal, "result not only in bigger attendance, but steadier attendance and fewer dropouts."
How true. The ideals that buoy us into 14-week commitments lose their air after several weeks or a long day at work. But the idea of appearing the quitter or sending your spouse off all alone can provide the right extra push. There were nights when I said I didn't feel like going and my husband said "please." I may be superstitious but those were the nights I learned the most.
But you needn't shy away from extra education together if your schedules prohibit long commitments. The quickie course is very much in vogue. Most of the over 300 one-night stands offered by the Open University are ideal for couples. And for the real hit-and-run learners, there are "sampler" courses such as those offered by the Alexandria Department of Recreation and Cultural Activities. "Samplers" are inexpensive, one-class introductions to subjects such as fencing, square dancing, home computers and Latin history.
There is such a variety of adult education offered in the Washington area, it can be exciting just to read about it. To start, tuck a bundle of catalogues from your local library into your coat, come home and say "Honey, surprise." Then litter the living-room floor with them and get into the spirit.
Don't feel guilty if you have to muscle your mate into sharing a learning experience with you. Way back, when I indicated that I was serious about our idea, my husband became nervous. I had to insist that we pursue it. This lead-follow pattern is common and probably inevitable among couples in adult education.
"One member of a couple usually provides the momentum and takes the other along," observes Leslie Clark, supervisor of the Alexandria Division of Special Programs. After our classes, driving home or stopping for a drink, our combined experience gave us twice the material to talk about. Our shared perceptions rounded off any half-circle views we'd each formed and helped us answer questions too vague or personal to bring up in class.
These conversations often led to the exclamation, "You never told me that!" We were amazed by what the course uncovered in us. The Spouse, usually denigrated as a dense mass with predictable behavior, became as rich a source of ideas and new life material as a collection of Great Books. We'd accelerated the speed at which we interested each other.
We learned to give feedback on each other's performance, praising it in general ("your speech was the best") and critiquing only the specifics ("make more eye contact"). And we learned to compete as friends ("I'm glad for this opportunity to let you win more awards than me").
The great promise of education is that it will enlarge you. A married couple hope they will grow and change in a relatively parallel way. Especially in courses that ask you to change your behavior, learning together eliminates rude surprises and the need to explain or translate your enthusiasm to someone who wasn't there.
But there are breezy side effects to teaming up. Learning is an adventure and adventures, because they distract your attention from routines, can be relaxing. The word for school, after all, comes from the Greek schole and Latin schola, which mean leisure. It was only after the classical civilizations that leisure became associated with idleness and passive entertainment.
To take advantage of the opportunity to meet new people, a couple should avoid clinging to each other during a class, or reminding others that they're together. Like good hostesses, many instructors deliberately separate couples, even in courses like ballroom dancing.
"Putting a distance between couples helps them see good qualities about each other they didn't realize before," says Brenda Jessel, a resident instructor for the Dale Carnegie Course. "And we don't want them to lean on each other. It doesn't do them justice."
"One out of three adult learners is there not primarily for the subject, but for the opportunity to make contact with others," says Ronald Gross, the 46-year-old author who transformed the stodgy image of adult education into the inspiring book The Lifelong Learner, and more recently The Independent Scholar's Handbook (Addison-Wesley, $8.95 paperback).
"When I would find out that two of my students were married," says Gross, "they would stand out in my mind. I think it's a good idea and there should be more of it. It's a well known fact that an effective strategy for self-change is doing it in duo. Students in general are advised to team up.
"By the way," he adds, "I met my wife in a philosophy course in college."