Free Your Inner Hermione With Self-Improvement 101


In college, I had a sculpture professor who swore I’d be an “international superstar.” My initial attempts at crafting a realistic bust of my project partner had come out looking more like a Nick Park creation than the Venus de Milo, leaving me to cure my boredom by making clay vegetable gardens. It was those tiny, cartoonish carrots and pumpkins that caught my professor’s eye, and he gave me a new assignment for the rest of the semester: Make as many minuscule vegetables as possible and mount them onto clay tiles for an entire wall of gardens.

It’s experiences like those that I relish — when thinking outside the box wins the day. Years out of school and mired in the nine-to-whenever workday, it seems nigh on impossible to recapture the magic of discovering something within myself (even through mistakes, or lack of sculpting ability) that isn’t motivated by the next paycheck. That’s where my New Year’s resolution comes in.

In the Age of Trump, while signing petitions and attending rallies are important, allowing your brain a creative critical-thinking workout every day is going to be a vital part of thriving. Now, more than ever, the world needs Hermione Grangers: strong individuals eager to raise their hands and show off their knowledge even at the risk of looking uncool, and to speak up, indulge their curiosity, and learn. After spending the last weeks of 2016 bingeing on Bob Ross how-tos, I decided it was high time I stopped watching and started participating. This year, I’m working out and toning something that isn’t spandex-clad: my mind.

One of the biggest challenges aspiring lifelong learners face in choosing a class is whether to go with the head or the heart. Choose something in line with your profession that will further your career in the long run? Or choose something that will fuel your passion and help strengthen your creative life? A survey of my friends brought plenty of suggestions, from Brooklyn Brainery and Brooklyn Botanic Garden to the Office of Adult and Continuing Education and local community centers. A few friends said they’d secured work stipends to complete classes, while others had tried building on what they already knew.

“I wanted to continue using my degree, but apply it and challenge myself in a new way,” a fellow English major said of her writing classes at Second City, which offers online coursework for those not in Chicago. “It’s been awesome to write every week without the pressure.” Another friend talked about the unexpected joys of community center courses, which he said can be cheap but hit-or-miss in terms of quality: “The worst-case scenario is it’s a little boring, but I had a whole hell of a lot of fun learning to tap-dance with a bunch of moms.”

Ideally, you’ll want to take in-person classes, which get you out of that matchbox you call home, help you meet people from all walks of life, and encourage new perspectives. If you lack spending money, there are tons of free and sliding-scale classes around New York City. And if your schedule doesn’t permit the IRL, online courses can allow for weird hours and great professor-student feedback unconstrained by classroom walls.

With so much noise to sift through, here are a few local places where curiosity is rewarded:

For something off the beaten path

There’s more to Brooklyn Brainery, a self-described “book club on steroids,” than meets the eye. The adult education school with sites in Prospect Heights and Windsor Terrace offers a casual community approach to education that takes student suggestions and creates courses that range from soapmaking and tarot card basics to the history of “Nasty Women of Ancient Egypt.” What you get here are hands-on lessons taught by experts who won’t charge you an arm and a leg. If you’re interested in trying a little bit of everything until you find your passion, your wallet will thank you.

For traditional learning

The New York Public Library offers thousands of free classes each year — from basic English to tech how-tos (there’s even a mini workshop on 3-D printing). If you’re looking for something straightforward, or just another excuse to hit the library once in a while, these are a good option.

To get in touch with the earth

There’s more than just putting trowel to dirt at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, though there are plenty of gardening lessons, too. You can also learn to ferment, concoct herbal medicines, or capture landscapes with watercolors. The best part? In a city with few opportunities to get up close and personal with greenery (without worrying about whether someone puked there last week), you can get your hands dirty in BBG’s teaching-oriented greenhouses and gardens.

For those tired of Seamless

Williamsburg’s Brooklyn Kitchen boasts some of the borough’s best classes for home cooks, teaching folks to ditch delivery apps and pick up a knife (literally, in the case of nose-to-tail butchery classes). If you’re a dessert devotee, try out a Bake the Book event at Milk Bar’s Williamsburg classroom, where you can learn to make chef Christina Tosi’s crack pie (which really does live up to its cheeky name).

To prepare for the worst (or just a weekend getaway)

Mountain Scout Survival School will make you into the self-sufficient survivalist you always wanted to be. Whether you want to learn how to track animals (in the “wilds” of Brooklyn or at the school’s upstate location) or just want to be ready for urban emergencies, these classes will help you prepare for just about anything.

And just about everything else

Course Horse gathers up thousands of classes from organizations around the city and puts them all into one easily searchable location. Want to try your hand at glassblowing or leatherworking? Or brush up on your dusty French, or even get into armored combat? This is a grab bag of pretty much every kind of class (from professional and life skills to performing arts and tech), taught by specialists who will help you master new skills every step of the way.

In the end, passion won out: For my first course, I’m pursuing calligraphy —what seems like a dying art, save for the infinite chalkboard writing and invitation samples clogging my Instagram and Pinterest. I’ve always been a doodler and a letter writer; why not combine the two and send out some nice missives in 2017? I may not be building a wall of vegetables, but I’m ready to stock my arsenal of artistry for the years ahead.