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Brenda McCaskill decided in 1984 that it was time to buy her first home—or at least learn as much as she possibly could about the topic. With no relatives or friends familiar with the process to guide her, she decided to embark on a monthslong fact-finding mission to gather information on becoming a homeowner. In a stroke of luck, McCaskill’s hunt for data coincided with the opening of First Class Inc., a Dupont Circle nonprofit adult learning center. She happened upon a catalog and signed up for one of its maiden courses, a seminar for first-time homebuyers called “Buying a House in D.C. and You Don’t Have $100,000?”

“I knew absolutely nothing,” McCaskill says. “I took the course and learned different things about location, condos versus co-ops, I picked up pointers from other participants—things like that.”

Several months after the first-time homeowners’ class, McCaskill, now a 66-year-old retired nurse, purchased her first home. She was so thrilled with her buy that, right then, she decided that spending pocket change and a chunk of free time on a class was a small price to pay for knowledge.

After buying her house, McCaskill had to decorate it. She took a First Class course in interior design to help her pick out furniture and paint colors. “I learned about space arrangement…north and west exposures, how sunlight should radiate in—stuff like that,” she says.

Once her Southwest Waterfront condo was outfitted with tables and chairs, McCaskill decided to work on some smaller, crafty embellishments for her home. She tried her hand at making herbal soaps and jewelry à la First Class. “I still have some soap somewhere—and some beads,” McCaskill says. “I bought the stuff, but I haven’t done any more on it. It’s always there if [I] wanna go back, though.”

After that, she began attending pretty much any course that offered something in the way of personal enrichment. McCaskill estimates that she’s taken roughly four or five classes each year since First Class opened, which works out to about 100 courses in the lifetime of the organization.

The courses that stand out in McCaskill’s mind aren’t necessarily the ones that yielded a tangible end result but those in which she picked up a skill easily applied to her everyday life. A vocabulary class, McCaskill says, “really got me into working more crossword puzzles.” “Conquering Clutter: Get Control of Your Life!” enabled her to get a handle on junk. “That one really helped me,” she says. “It really helps if you’re cluttery—not filthy, but cluttery.” She also got a lot out of an etiquette course taught by Nancy Mitchell. “She’s really, really good,” McCaskill says. “We learned to fold a flag, how to work a name tag, when and how to balance your plate, glass, and napkin in one hand and walk through a receiving line.”

McCaskill’s many forays into the world of the quickie seminar add up to a great boost for First Class and the lifelong-learning industry—which needs all the help it can get. First Class is one of only 14 independent learning schools—centers not affiliated with a museum, college, or the like—left in the nation. The Wisconsin-based lifelong-learning association Learning Resources Network, or LERN, estimates that there were three times as many centers like First Class just 15 to 20 years ago. The field of personal enrichment is now driven by confidential Internet browsing, not confessional classroom sessions. Those schools that have survived, such as First Class, have had to overhaul curriculum to bring in new pupils, without alienating students, like McCaskill, who’ve been with them since the beginning.

“My only criticism of First Class is that they need to be more consistent with their bibliographies,” McCaskill says. “When a teacher hands out a really good one, that’s what I use to go to the library and do more research.

“Other than that, I can’t think of anything they really need to change.”

First Class brands itself through its catalog, a colorful booklet released every other month, outlining the latest course offerings. Although most people in Washington have never taken a single class, let alone a hundred, it’s hard to escape the First Class handout, a ubiquitous presence in store racks and libraries across the city.

Because of lean times in the world of adult education, the brochure covers are illustrated with public-domain clip art, but in the early days of First Class, there was a contract cartoonist who sketched something unique for every issue. The January/February ’89 edition, for example, sports a caricature of George H. W. Bush. An unseen reporter asks him what he’s going to do now that he’s won the presidency, to which he answers, via cartoon bubble, “I’m going to FIRST CLASS!”

One drawing, which still hangs on one of the two floors First Class occupies in a town house on 20th Street NW, depicts Hollywood notables such as Whoopi Goldberg and Jack Nicholson with the tag line “You Never Know Who You’ll Meet at First Class.” Among the stars is a less familiar face—a blond woman with a mane of curly hair who’s the only person you’d actually have a good chance of running into at First Class. That’s owner Debra Leopold.

Leopold, 49, started the business in 1984 with the aim of bringing quality control to the world of adult education. Before opening First Class, she worked at Open University, a Connecticut Avenue NW learning center that lived down to its moniker: Many classes were being taught out of people’s homes, and there was little screening of instructors. As a result, she says, students never knew what to expect, and their experiences weren’t always favorable. So when Open University gave the old white board a final dry erase and was acquired by the New York–based Learning Annex, Leopold decided she would strike out on her own.

“It’s scary calling your business First Class,” she says. “I wanted to make sure 99 percent of people were happy and the 1 percent that weren’t, I could make it right.”

One of her first challenges was to approach people she thought would teach “neat” classes. Even without a business plan or a track record, she hooked many of her teachers in those initial days with a marketing opportunity they couldn’t refuse. Teaching a course would be a great word-of-mouth advertisement for their businesses: Not only would it let them expose a good number of people to their skills and services, but it would also establish them as experts. Of course, teachers couldn’t expect a golden promotional opportunity and a fat paycheck. Teachers made $7.50 a head for a two-hour seminar or $8.70 a head for a three-hour seminar, less a $25 rental charge, a pay rate that still holds today.

One of the first to sign on was Bob Levey, then a columnist for the Washington Post. “I wanted him to do a class on the crazy things people wrote to him,” Leopold says. “I was nervous because I had nothing to show him, but he said yes.” The two have become good friends. “My husband had an affair while I was struggling to open the business, and [Levey] said, ‘Come talk to me,’” Leopold recalls. “And the only time he ever missed a class is when he had heart bypass. He taught until he left the Post.”

“I really enjoyed all of my many years as a teacher,” Levey says. “Deb had—and has—a knack for attracting students as varied as Washington itself. A lot of adult-ed schools that have come and gone appeal only to the latte world.”

In addition to a stable of loyal instructors, Leopold has several evergreen classes that she can count on to pack ’em in. Courses on quitting your job typically sell out, as does anything that promises an exciting career makeover. “Making $100,000 a Year as a Private Eye” is always a smash.

It typically costs $39 or $35 to take a course at First Class, $29 or $25 with a $35 annual membership.

Those prices justify First Class’ bare-bones approach to enlightenment. Students come in for a quick seminar and then go on their way. There’s no diploma, accreditation, or credential to drop on a résumé. “Some people, they don’t want to read a book,” Leopold says. “They like the exchange of a class.”

To outsiders, the arrangement can be somewhat baffling. When Leopold hosted a delegation from China in February, the visitors were filled with questions about the quick-shot-of-knowledge model of her school. When asked about popular courses, Leopold mentioned massage. One visitor asked through a translator, “How many students take the course in order to become competent?”

“We don’t certify,” Leopold answered. “It’s…for fun.”

The interpreter took several moments to translate the answer, and when she was through, the room full of Chinese men and women in dark suits buzzed for several more. After pondering Leopold’s answer, the man asked another question. “So [the course] is only to get people interested in that area?” he inquired.

“Yes,” Leopold replied.

After more commotion from the delegation, who were trying hard to make sure they understood Leopold’s model, the gentleman posed one last question. “So, is it fair to say that people in this class want to know what it feels like to be in other areas, but they already hold a high position? Can we say these classes are not profitable but contribute to the community?”

Leopold gave another “yes” and added, “Americans have an expression—to ‘dip your toe in the water.’”

Leopold says that people often ask her how a short seminar in a subject can really be enriching: “They say, ‘How much can you really learn in one night?’” But she thinks that people are too hung up on becoming experts in every field rather than taking time to learn an assortment of new things just for the hell of it.

“People forget that the word ‘dilettante’ means ‘to take delight in,’” she says.

On February 25, McCaskill takes her first class of the year at First Class, a Saturday seminar titled “How to Tell if Someone is Lying to You,” taught by self-styled Lyin’ Tamer Janine Driver.

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Driver starts things off by dropping some controversial names and asking the class to categorize them as guilty or innocent. JonBenet Ramsey’s parents. Michael Jackson. OJ Simpson. Today, Driver promises, everyone will leave knowing the verbal and nonverbal cues that scream “pants on fire.” It’s not about sweating, arm-folding, or shifty eyes, she says, but about determining what behavior is typical for someone—“norming,” she calls it—and deciding which movements and phrases expose a liar.

She then asks a student to read her bio. After everyone learns that Driver is a stand-up comic and radio host in addition to a human lie detector, pupils are offered a chance to become a part of the Lyin’ Tamer empire. Driver says that if students call companies and recommend her as a speaker, and she books a gig based on the referral, they can earn a percentage of her fee as commission.

After the brief self-promotion, Driver begins the getting-to-know-each-other segment of the class. With most First Class instruction, participants are asked to share with classmates a first name and a reason for coming, but often introductions are more involved. Today, Driver runs through some verbal cues that they should all give when meeting someone—certain actions, she says, denote disgust, even if you’ve got a smile on your face.

“Face your belly button towards a person if you like them,” Driver instructs. “Then square off, make eye contact, and when they introduce themselves, repeat their name.” The deal is sealed with a good handshake. “Not a fish but not a bone-crusher, either,” she advises. “Between Clay Aiken and Hulk Hogan.”

After the students have learned how to mask contempt when meeting someone they’re unsure of, Driver directs them to pair off for an exercise: Pretend that your partner is your best friend from junior high school whom you haven’t seen in years, and, using your newly acquired people skills, dig up some information on the person and present it to the class.

One man, a gentleman in double-bridged glasses, explains that it is very difficult for him to chat up strangers. “I’m an ‘I’ on the Myers Briggs,” he says, meaning he’s an introvert according to the personality test. “Do you know how hard this is for an ‘I’?”

McCaskill brightens when the exercise is announced, but making buddies isn’t why she’s here. She likes mingling with “like-minded” people, but she comes to First Class to learn more about a specific topic, not the likes and dislikes of a housewife from Germantown or an accountant from Fairfax. Because of girlfriends and a husband who weren’t all that interested in spending weekend and evening hours taking classes with her, McCaskill has decided she’s more of a solitary person.

“I don’t have a lot of girlfriends I hook up with anymore,” she says. “I’d say to them, ‘There’s an opera—let’s go!’ They’d say, ‘I don’t wanna see that.’” Ditto her ex-husband. “I’d say, ‘Let’s take swimming!’ He’d say, ‘Why do you need a white man to teach you how to swim?’”

Today, in Driver’s class, McCaskill is paired with Wayne, a middle-aged man whom she partnered with because he happened to be sitting right beside her. Normally chatty and bubbly, she is pretty quiet as Wayne talks about changes in the city, where he grew up, and other random information. As they sit on stiff-backed gray chairs in First Class’ flower-curtained and candy-filled third-floor classroom, Wayne talks and talks and, when it’s time for them to tell the class about each other, they haven’t revealed much in the way of vital statistics.

“We didn’t really get to that—we just talked about all sorts of things,” McCaskill says when asked to run through her partner’s name, age, and occupation.

Still, McCaskill and Wayne seem to hit it off. They exchange telephone numbers and promise to keep in touch. McCaskill later raves about Driver’s class—the questions that can be administered to stymie untruthfulness, the instructor’s enthusiasm, and her ability to engage a couple of party poopers who walked into class surly and left smiling. She says that she and Wayne exchanged a couple of brief e-mails shortly after the class but that they haven’t really kept in touch.

“I haven’t met anyone yet that became a friend,” McCaskill later says. “You make their acquaintance, say you’ll call, but you never do—it’s the enthusiasm of the day, I guess.”

Every once in a while, Leopold bails on a class idea after just one session. Such was the fate of the course “Hydroponics (Soilless Culture).” Leopold signed up instructor Harry Belin, who was prepared to school participants in the fine points of plant-rearing. Instead, the inevitable happened: A bunch of amateur pot growers dominated. “I didn’t know!” says Leopold. “There was a very straight-laced man [as the instructor]. He brought plants as door prizes….He never came back.”

Broader trends in education also force tweaks in the First Class curriculum. Although the center typically grosses about $100,000 per year, the field of adult education has suffered at the hands of the Internet. To keep up, Leopold added online classes in July 2005—six-week courses offered at $99 a pop. The online fare includes “Enjoying European Art,” “Conversational French,” “How to Sell and Buy on eBay,” and other courses that don’t necessarily require face-to-face instruction.

For her in-person seminars, Leopold now looks for classes that simply can’t happen electronically. That means lots of interactive and tactile stuff: massage, yoga, wine tasting, card-making, and other things that are best pursued in three dimensions.

The refined focus on hands-on instruction has brought in a decent number of young folks to First Class—the recent “Basic Massage Techniques for Partners” course, for instance, was attended almost exclusively by pairs of 20- and 30-somethings.

First Class has always shied away from public-health courses. For example, Leopold won’t schedule an AIDS awareness class or a session on beating breast cancer, because she doesn’t feel right charging a fee when local hospitals give such issues free, comprehensive coverage. And some things have fallen out of fashion with time: “Leave a Message at the Tone,” a course on recording answering-machine messages, was once a big draw but has long since been removed from the First Class catalog.

Back in the ’80s, “Applying for a Federal Job and SF-171 Preparation” was one of Leopold’s most attended classes. Before online résumé templates were a standard feature of job-finder Web sites, it seemed tons of Washingtonians needed guidance in demystifying the basic form.

The class was discontinued in the late ’80s. Other killed courses include the homebuying class that Brenda McCaskill once found so informative, “How to Buy a PC,” and “Designing an Effective Brochure.” “I can’t run a class that’s easily researchable on the Internet anymore,” Leopold says.

Straight lectures, such as the recent Kabbalah introductory course led by Robin Margolis, seem to do well despite the fact that the basic tenets of this Jewish mysticism are outlined everywhere, from the Web to Us Weekly. But most seminars tend to fall into two basic categories: holdovers from pre-Web-browser days that have yet to become obsolete and the more recent, interactive additions.

The main stalwart among the holdout classes is “Conquering Clutter,” which has hung onto its spot in the curriculum since 1991. Although endless material about getting rid of junk is available anywhere books are sold, First Class’ guru, Benjamin Herring, the Clutter Surgeon®, has drawn a steady following over the years. His trick is to avoid prescribing complicated organizational systems to his students. Herring, a sort of Dr. Phil with a DustBuster, takes the tough-love approach of telling his pupils to simplify their paper-strewn lives by throwing away shit that doesn’t matter.

In a packed March session of his course at First Class, he gives his students two minutes to write down all of the things they’d try to save if their home were on fire.

“I bet you all put down those stacks of old newspapers and magazines, didn’t you?” he asks after time is up.

It also helps that Herring isn’t one of those perky, hyperorganized types who began putting everything in its place as soon as he could walk, yet he claims some insight into the minds of the junky. His own life was once dominated by mess. “My dad was a professor with OCD,” Herring shares at the beginning of class. “He had so much clutter, there were just narrow pathways in the house….I had some of these problems hardwired in me.”

The thing about Herring that no book on organization or Internet tip sheet could duplicate is his mix of tender handholding and seriousness about stamping out clutter. At one point in the class, he asks the students, all women in this session, to write down all of the discrete units of clutter in their home. Anything that requires making a decision whether to keep or toss it qualifies as a discrete piece of junk, be it a scrap of paper or overloaded file cabinet.

“Frankly, I find this overwhelming,” says one woman.

“Don’t think of what you’ll get rid of,” Herring says. “Think of what you’ll save.”

“Dream Interpretation and Symbolism,” taught by personal dream consultant Forbes Robbins Blair, falls under a category of classes that Leopold has cut back on: New Age. “I call it ‘New Awareness,’” she says. “New Age peaked in the mid-to-late ’80s. I’ve seen a downturn, but now the pendulum is swinging back to massage, yoga.” But deciphering dreams is a tough sell since there is a glut of information available on the subject, online and otherwise.

There are only three students in a March 9 “Dream Interpretation” class. The course description invites folks to come learn how to chart their dreams and decode the secret messages in them, but the blurb leaves out the biggest incentive to attend—to get the opportunity to have an expert analyze your deepest subliminal nocturnal admissions. And, it seems, some dream analysis is really best left to a professional.

“I’m riding a train, a long train, like an Amtrak train, but it doesn’t go straight,” one woman shares in class. “It’s going to New Orleans from Boston, so it’s sort of curving around instead of going down the East Coast, and I’m going through the compartments—some are luxurious, some are just nice—and I see my friend’s husband, who died, who we since found out, in life, was not a very nice person….”

The description goes on and on for several minutes, until Blair has to interrupt the student so that he can cover lucid dreaming and journaling before their time is up. But he does give the dream a bit of analysis and the woman who experienced it a little guidance. “I’ll stick around after class for anyone who wants to talk in-depth,” Blair says.

In the month of March, McCaskill has three learning activities scheduled. Two of them are lectures—one on the psychological profiles of great political leaders and another on Ancient Rome. The third is titled “Boost Your Charisma by Understanding Body Language,” and it’s at First Class.

The lectures reflect a new McCaskill resolution to become more politically savvy. Her home is filled with such books as Islam for Dummies and Judaism for Dummies, along with various political tomes. And she’s working on a presentation for her Great Decisions political-policy discussion group, which meets in Southwest each month for seven months out of the year. She says she’s perfectly content to stay close to home and work on her many, many goals.

In fact, she is so happy to throw herself into her studies that when she long ago cut out people she saw as impediments to knowledge, she felt relieved. “I said, ‘Now I can be free to express myself. Do some traveling—and some learning.’”

“I can’t remember the last time I had someone from work over to my house,” she says. “But I do date.”

McCaskill’s one shot at a First Class dating seminar was a disaster, she says, but she was able to find a man all by herself, without any instruction from an expert. Her friend, she says, is brilliant and has a “great ability to conceptualize.” They talk about world issues and life, and he doesn’t stand in the way of her course schedule. But although they’ve been seeing each other for several years, McCaskill says she’s not looking to get hitched again. “He’s happy, I’m happy—I wouldn’t want to be married again.”

She says she’s not ready to take a class with him just yet, either.

“We could,” she says, “but I like to be me in class. That’s my time for myself.”CP

Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Charles Steck.