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  • Writer's pictureellencdonker


The South Orange-Maplewood Adult School holds the community together

These photos, mostly from the 1980s, illustrate the wide range of classes that the Adult School continues to offer: from ballet to clowning, pottery to upholstery, as well as the summer program for children.

Almost since its founding some 88 years ago, “Lifelong Learning” has been the motto of The South Orange-Maplewood Adult School. The COVID crisis suggests another tagline: “So far, and yet so near.”

With most in-person classes banned for nearly a year now, SOMAS teachers and students have been creating new ways to stay in each others’ lives because, as writing teacher Theresa Burns points out, in these days of isolation, “a lot of people are looking for a community.”

They have been finding it through Adult School classes held on Zoom, enabling teachers and students to remain close virtually while they must stay far apart in real life.

This is not the first time the Adult School has dealt with dark days. It was actually born in earlier hard times, during the Great Depression of 1933 when our communities had fewer jobs, little money, and much less entertainment. A group of local educators and concerned citizens responded with an idea that was remarkable at the time: Create evening classes that would offer adults new ideas, entertainments, maybe even new occupations. It became a beacon of hope where the community could gather and everyone could afford to take classes.

Charles Ornstein (L) of ProPublica and Nancy Solomon (R) of WNYC discuss "Can Investigative Journalism Save NJ?" at a SOMAS-sponsored event. Eva Samo (center) was honored for her 50-plus years as a SOMAS trustee. Photo by Sandra Kurek.

SOMAS has been getting high marks ever since. Now the oldest operating adult school in New Jersey, it was named a “Local Legacy” in 2000 by the Library of Congress. As a 501(c)(3) organization that receives no taxpayer funding, the school has offered thousands of students hundreds of affordable classes in everything from glassblowing, gardening and successful online dating to sewing, singing, and stand-up comedy.

Truly a school for the community and from the community, many Adult School teachers are drawn from the South Orange-Maplewood School District. The popular Children’s Summer Program also involves many local teachers and other talented locals, and most of the counselors – known as “Yellow Shirts” – are local teenagers.

With COVID still on the horizon, a number of classes, including T’ai Chi, African drumming, yoga, golf, and a wine-pairing dinner, have been held outside with safety measures like masks and social distancing. Still, details for the 2021 Children’s Summer Program remain in flux while organizers weigh plans that will ensure safety for both students and teachers.

“It all depends on the district and the pandemic,” says Adult School staffer Marianne Cook. “But we are forging ahead and planning a great summer for the kids even if it looks a little different than usual. We will exceed the CDC guidelines on COVID and be sure the kids are safe, while at the same time providing a fun and creative environment.”

As it has for the world over, the pandemic has caused many changes at the Adult School, including a reduction in staff. But not all the changes have been negative.

As it has for the world over, the pandemic has caused many changes at the Adult School, including a reduction in staff. But not all the changes have been negative.

Making joyous music together: Bossio at the Springfield Avenue Open Air Market (from left) Chris Valencia, Danielle Perrotta, BJ Hermann, Miles Goldberg, Caleb Wolff-Perrotta.

“What an amazing thing, to find a community in writing,” marvels Burns, who has taught at the Adult School for five-plus years after an earlier career in publishing in New York and Boston. She also helps high-schoolers polish their college essays.

A published author herself (her Two-Train Town, a chapbook about living in South Orange, drew critical applause), Burns says that The Adult School’s virtual writing community works for her, too: “Without that I wouldn’t still be writing. It helps keep you going.”

The Adult School community actually got Danielle Perrotta going on a new phase of her musical career. A transplant from Bensonhurst, NY, she’s a trained musician and opera singer whose day jobs have included teaching at Tuscan School, coaching math teachers in Newark, and tutoring children with learning difficulties. She also has her own band, Bossio. Then, three years ago, the ukulele came strumming into Perrotta’s life.

“I took guitar at the Adult School, but the guitar was too large for my hands. A friend taught me how to play the ukulele,” she says. “It’s really easy and so much fun. Take one workshop learn a couple of basic chords, and you’ll be playing that fast!”

Almost as quickly, Perrotta began getting together to play ukulele with friends. Then came a stint last winter at South Orange’s General Store Holiday Pop-Up Shop. “They asked me to play, then to teach ukulele,” Perrotta recalls. Next thing she was leading joyous classes at The Adult School, in person at first, then online. Despite teaching virtually, Perrotta has created a very real musical community. In fact, her podcast, SIP in SOMA, is “all about people who are connecting, collaborating, and contributing to our communities.

“I came here looking for a cool community,” she says. “It’s a dream come true to live here. I can create here! There’s a loving, communal energy vibe. Maplewood is amazing! And if you want a little slice of Maplewood, you can get it at the Adult School.”

As teacher Lois Cantwell says, ‘You play, you kibbitz, you make life-long friends around a mah-jongg table.’

If it’s socialization you want, take up mah-jongg, advises Adult School teacher Lois Cantwell. “Mah-jongg is a ‘socialization delivery service.’ You play, you kibbitz, you make lifelong friends.”

Cantwell speaks from experience, she says. Semi-retired from her corporate career in marketing, she became “so socially isolated my sister Cynthia in Florida called and commanded: ‘You gotta get a mah-jongg game together!’” Cantwell listened, learned (“I grew up with a mah-jongg mother”) and now she’s in her fifth year of teaching it at the Adult School, initially live, now switched over to Zoom.

“They learned mah-jongg, I learned Zoom,” she reports.

Some 200 students later by her estimate, Cantwell has created her own community of players. “I run into them all the time. When you are part of this community, you are part of this community.” As she puts it, “It’s a marvelous adventure,” she says. “Once we get immunized I want to have in-person events for all my students so I can give them a real hug and kiss!”

Is it cocktail time yet? Barlingual Chicks, Chrissy McIntyre (left) and Katy Chapman (right), double-check their watches.

Two other Adult School teachers have created an 80-proof way to meet people and mix cocktails, virtually and actually. Artist Chrissy McIntyre and marketing exec Katy Chapman, a.k.a. the “Barlingual Chicks,” have taken their mixology classes viral since March.

Before COVID, they’d gather party-goers at the 10-foot island in Chapman’s kitchen. Now they create cocktail parties on Zoom, like their Valentine’s Day “chocolate cocktail pilgrimage” for Adult School guests on the evening of January 30. “A perfect date night,” say the Chicks, where participants follow them through “a tipsy, fun-filled evening of cocktail shaking, game playing and chocolate-laden fun.”

Long-time friends who share a love of travel, McIntyre and Chapman also share a blog (, create “globally inspired” cocktails and throw private parties “together,” Zooming from their separate kitchens.

Despite the constraints wrought by COVID, the Barlingual Chicks note with a smile, “We found a way to get paid for doing what we love.”

Journalist Rose Bennett Gilbert is a long-time trustee and enthusiastic supporter who agrees that the South Orange-Maplewood Adult School is a local treasure.


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