Some childhood experiences are not meant to be forgotten. After 27 years of teaching English composition at Fairfield University, Dr. Eleanor Whitaker can pinpoint precisely which memory gives clarity and purpose to her daily work.
Whitaker was a third grader growing up in the South in the 1940’s when a fellow classmate, a bi-racial boy who was always getting into trouble, knocked down a cup of paint during art class. Their teacher – who Whitaker concedes was pushed to the limit – grabbed the boy by his shoulders, lifted him up so they were face to face, and scolded, “You’re nothing but trash.” The teacher then pushed the boy into a trash can where he was forced to remain the rest of the day.
“He was a bad boy but he was a little boy,” Whitaker reflects, “and he never cried, not a tear all day. He just took that abuse.” Whitaker pauses with the weight of the memory still leaning on her heart. “I never could understand all these years later how a teacher could treat another human being like that.”
Today, Whitaker devotes her English 11 freshman composition course to American diversity themes and heightening awareness of social injustices. Working with Professor Marion White under a grant awarded by the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, their shared goal is to develop more sensitive attitudes toward diversity issues of race and class that broaden and deepen their students’ understanding of the differences in the American experience.
Through reading the same books, watching the same movies, and attending panel discussions together, the paired classes of 80 students:
- Increase their connection to the material they’re assigned to read, such as Susan Eaton’s The Children in Room E4, Dalton Conley’s Honky, and Firoozeh Dumas’s Funny in Farsi: A Memoir of Growing Up Iranian in America
- Create meaningful communication by studying the same texts and watching the same movies, such as The Namesake
- Learn the importance of interconnectedness in the ideal American society
The New Beginnings Family Academy
The highlight of the course is its service-learning component involving a class trip to the innovative, inner-city charter school New Beginnings Family Academy. Located in Bridgeport – ten minutes away from Fairfield’s campus – New Beginnings is a tuition-free public school of choice that enrolls 360 K-8 grade students. Selected by a blind lottery administered by the League of Women Voters, the students are 98% Black or Hispanic.
At New Beginnings Family Academy, children thank each other for coming to school as they explore monthly ethical themes, such as friendship. The mission of the school is “intelligence plus character,” and every student is encouraged to learn without limits, respect one another’s diversity, and s-t-r-e-t-c-h.
For visiting Fairfield University students, the experience was a revelation.
“New Beginnings shattered my perception of inner-city schools as all being dangerous, lesser than my private Catholic elementary education, and having less motivated students,” writes Laura Hancq ’13 in her follow-up essay. “My eyes, as well as those of my classmates, were opened … because we were able to see firsthand what had been discussed in class all semester: race, class, and bridging the gaps between them.”
The Fairfield students were asked to talk about their college experience to the older students at New Beginnings, and read to the younger ones. Kimberly Suarez ’13, who read to a group of three 4th grade girls, writes, “Asia was the student who surprised me the most. She was an animated reader with a remarkable vocabulary for her age. I was astonished by her brightness as well as her character … [as] she was the student who also urged the other girls to sit respectively with their hands folded.” Suarez further reflects, “I was surprised … by how my expectations differed greatly from what I learned. It is the expectations and preconceptions such as I had that affect people from neighborhoods like Bridgeport in a negative manner.”
Whitaker points out that some of her students had never been in an inner city, and were shocked that such a disparate gap in “the American experience” existed just 10 minutes from campus. “It made them thankful for what they have,” says Whitaker, “and made them wonder what they could do to help.”
Diversity on Fairfield’s Campus
For years, Whitaker has watched her students remain disconnected to the material she assigned. “It was an uphill battle,” she confesses, explaining that there were so few students of diversity on campus that the material just seemed so distant to them. “What’s so exciting now is that I actually have students here who could tell their stories.” In the Fall 2009 semester, Whitaker’s classes included students from the inner cities of Boston, Bronx, and Bridgeport.
In addition, before the trip to New Beginnings, Professors Whitaker and White arranged for a panel of Fairfield students who were either immigrants themselves or children of immigrants to speak with their EN 11 classes. Between the books, movies, panel, writing assignments, and class discussions, Whitaker feels her students were sensitized to the plight of the students at New Beginnings before they arrived. “I wanted them to know that people are having different experiences here in America, and some of those experiences are harsh,” she explains. “And I wanted them to care.”
In essay after essay, Whitaker’s students came through with their care and concern. “The experience of visiting and reading to [these] children was very fulfilling,” writes Adam Cowen ’13. “It was amazing having children looking up at me wide-eyed, with big toothy smiles on their faces, relishing the chance to have someone new and different read to them.” However, when Cowen compared the children in New Beginnings with the children in Eaton’s Room E4, he continued, “It is terribly upsetting and illuminating to realize that life is most definitely not fair and some people face challenges that are much greater than we can realize.”
Whitaker hopes her students will take this awareness of “others” and apply it to each other. She believes that Fairfield could be an equalizing place if her students could learn to respect those who were blessed with a comfortable upbringing and those who were not. Now that she scans her classroom and sees such a mix every day, her hope is taking root.
With a father who was raised in an orphanage by Jesuits, Whitaker, who grew up in Hyattsville, Maryland, understands what it is like to live without. Her dad, John McVearry, was crippled by polio as an infant and struggled throughout his childhood without parents and two strong legs to stand on. “You can’t run with the ball,” a priest told him when he was young, “but you can hit it.”
When it came to giving to others, McVearry grew up to hit the ball out of the park. He became an optician who amply provided for his family while also extending his generosity to those in need by regularly visiting the homes of parapelgic children to prescribe and fit their glasses. “He raised us to help others,” recalls Whitaker. “That was his mission and he hoped it would be ours.”
When Whitaker became an adjunct professor at Fairfield, she discovered her way of making a difference in the lives of others. And Fairfield faculty and administrators took notice. The Rev. Henry Murphy, S.J., whose 40-year career at Fairfield culminated in his position as dean of freshman, would send Whitaker students he felt were going through a difficult time. A professor of English and religious studies himself, Fr. Murphy had a keen awareness of Whitaker’s special talent. “You have a gift of drawing people out,” he told her. “Writing is a healing process and you have a healing touch.”
Whether it’s her own students or those of New Beginnings, Whitaker believes that a healthy, challenging, supportive learning environment can make all the difference to a child or young adult in development. For her, it all comes together in her EN 11 English composition class.
“I saw my third grade classmate in the children of New Beginnings. Somehow that little school made those children happy – they were cheerful, hopeful in that protective environment,” says Whitaker. “That’s what I wish my classmate could have had, when we both had our whole lives before us.”
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