Continuing Education: Finding My Strong Suit

By Constance Whitney | August 18th, 2016

Comedic writer Constance Whitney doesn't let the detractors of her youth discourage her from lifelong learning. Chuckle with her anecdotes and discover some lessons of your own.

When I was in kindergarten, I was sitting at the arts and crafts table painting a sunset behind a house. I was extraordinarily proud of my painting – my rainbow had every shade of green you could imagine – my favorite color at the time. My house was unique, with lots of chimneys and a roof that grew out of the side of the first story. Miss Penny, my teacher, looked at my masterpiece and said, “Oh dear, well it’s obvious painting is not your strong suit.”

Fifty-some years later, I still remember her words, and the words of subsequent instructors who pepper my childhood memories. In grade school, my ballet instructor suggested my parents enroll me in “an activity more suited” – adult-speak for “this kid can’t dance.” In middle school, my parents were told that riding horses “wasn’t in her cards”; and the high school volleyball coach was very vocal about her less-than-enthusiastic opinion of my Olympic potential. Throughout my childhood, “not your strong suit” was the recurring verdict. If I had a dollar for each person who has told me that my talents must lie elsewhere, I’d be filthy rich.


One would think that the constant constructive criticism would dishearten me and make me shy away from new activities. I used to look at my sisters and their obvious talents and literally cringe. My eldest sister was the star of the school plays – she was stuck doing that. One of my other sisters was a ballet dancer – she didn’t get to ride horses because she had to dance.

For me, my inabilities to excel at the obvious activities allowed me the luxury to flit to more obscure pastimes. While one sister had to run lines for an upcoming theatrical production and another was soaking her sore toes after yet another Swan Lake dance recital, I got to ride my bike to the local library and check out another Jane Austen novel to read in the park while feeding the ducks and getting a nice tan. I got to take lessons in archery and water skiing, and to join the debate club and be the editor of the high school yearbook. I got to learn a little bit about everything by not being fabulous at anything. Throughout my life, I have embraced those “oh, the poor dear” words as a challenge to continually try something new, learn something exciting, or just to explore whatever life holds next for me.

As a younger adult, learning was driven solely by curricula and grade-point averages. Taking a course because it was interesting took a back seat to taking a course because it was required. Calculus won out over creative writing more times than not. Later on, when my kids were growing up, my learning options revolved mostly around whatever stage of life the kids were in at the time. I became a certified infant swim instructor so I could safely play at the pool with the little ones. I tackled the intricacies of the Pokémon phenomenon to better assist my son on his quest for Poké-greatness. I even took a course in defensive driving to keep my babies safe should the myths about attacking Zombies turn out to be non-mythical.



Now that I have reached “that certain age” where I can do what I want, I can finally explore whatever I desire! At this stage of my life, I am like a kid in the candy store with the options, availability and affordability of the immense array of learning opportunities that surround me. It’s finally my time to find out where my talents truly lie and where I am best suited. And for this, I have a plan.

My first foray into my new education is going to be targeted at putting to rest Miss Penny’s derision of my artistic abilities. I spoke with Sarah Whipkey at The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen, whose enthusiasm for lifelong learning and artistic pursuits was infectious. She had me salivating at their offerings, including classes in ceramics, mosaics, jewelry making and painting, all with very affordable $35 to $215 fees for the eight-week programs. In addition to classes at the center, there are outreach opportunities through the Artful Living 55+ program that are offered throughout the Richmond area. Instructors and volunteers take the huge array of classes to places like Carriage Hill and Brookdale, to name a few, to allow for more access to the programs.

For my purposes, though, I’ve decided that the Center’s Happy Hour Art program is my perfect chance to release my inner Rembrandt. Held once a month on Saturday afternoons, Happy Hour Art combines a painting class with wine tasting! My hope is that the infusion of fermented grapes will enhance my artsy skills.

Knowing that my attention span is slightly shorter than a hyperactive flea’s, I wanted to also look at lifelong learning centers that offer programs outside the art realm. The Shepherd’s Center of Richmond (TOSCOR) and its Open University (OU) courses fit this bill exactly. As Julie Adams-Buchanan explained to me, through the OU, I can take any and all courses I want – there are about 66 different choices per semester – for only $40 per eight-week session (plus the $25 annual membership fee). With three sessions a year, that’s about $145 for an entire year! Some courses are even taught by volunteer professors from local universities. Topics range from foreign languages, literature, history, political science, art and music to religious studies, philosophy, science, writing, estate planning, Feldenkrais exercise and yoga. There are also Lunch ’n’ Life lectures with expert speakers on Wednesdays. I can bring a sandwich, attend a quick lecture and meet some new people.

After perusing the OU catalog, I’ve decided to take the Feldenkrais class for two reasons. First, I have never heard of this particular type of fitness program before and I love trying new exercises. And second, it promises to debunk the “no pain no gain” philosophy – a debunking I intend to flaunt over my semi-cruel personal trainer. Third, as holistic health guru Dr. Andrew Weil says, “The Feldenkrais Method can undo many of the aches and pains that plague us …, help older people achieve greater range of motion and flexibility and help all of us feel more comfortable in our bodies.”

I’ve also decided to fulfill a lifelong desire to learn Spanish. And then maybe delve into a history class or two … or eight. OU is going to be my learning oyster!


continuing-education-bethNext up on my lifelong learning plan are some more serious classes. I’ve decided to explore the possibilities at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of Richmond School of Professional and Continuing Studies. My best friend is a U of R alumnus and touts the excellent instruction there. At the Osher Institute, I can participate in a combination of undergraduate courses for audit, special interest minicourses, free lectures, community service projects, performing arts events and more. I won’t need to worry about entrance exams, tests or grade-point averages.

Education without pressure – where were you when I was 18? I think the “Outdoor Entertaining with Oil and Vinegar” cooking class sounds like fun. So does the “Preserving Your Family History” course in the genealogy section. And with the “propose a course” option (where you can suggest a new course idea) my choices are limited only by my own imagination.

My fellow Boomers, we are immensely fortunate to be living in this era, and this city. In this digital age, the world is at our fingertips, just a Google search away. And the opportunities Richmond offers for us to continue to grow and expand our knowledge are nearly endless. As Henry Ford said, “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at 20 or 80. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.” I intend to be young forever.

Local Lifelong Learning Options

The Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen – 804-261-ARTS (2787),

For information on the Artful Living 55+ program, 804-261-6205,

The Shepherd’s Center of Richmond – 804-355-7282,

Note: Volunteer drivers are always in demand.

The Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at The University of Richmond School of Professional and Continuing Studies – 804-289-8133,

Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden

Virginia Commonwealth University

J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College*

Weinstein JCC 

Visual Arts Center of Richmond –  Visit here for the current class selections.

Promoting Art for Life Enrichment Through Transgenerational Engagement (PALETTE)

* Discounted tuition programs available

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