Elizabeth Bobrick '73 is a visiting scholar at Wesleyan University, where she currently teaches ancient Greek language and literature in the Department of Classical Studies. She is also involved in Wesleyan's Center for Prison Education. Elizabeth's published works include scholarly articles on Aristophanes, Sophocles, and Theophrastus and essays on topics ranging from baseball to seasonal teaching anxiety. Having served on several nonprofit boards, Elizabeth remains active in her community's social justice initiatives. She received her PhD from Johns Hopkins University.
When did you attend Graded?
I attended eighth grade and part of ninth grade at Graded.
What brought you and your family to Graded?
I started halfway through middle school because I got kicked out of the American School in Santos. It's a funny story... My family lived in Santos, as Petrobrás had contracted my dad's company to build a plant in Cubatão. A new headmaster came in. He was very strict, and my brother and I were not happy about him. To our surprise, we were invited not to come back. My parents wanted me to go to an American high school, so that's how I ended up at Graded. It was my good fortune to arrive at Graded earlier than we had planned. I had to commute from Santos back and forth, which was not great, but it was worth it.
Was being at Graded an impactful experience for you?
Living in Brazil and being at Graded, in particular, was the antithesis of everything that had made me unhappy in America. At Graded, it was okay to be smart, whereas it was not cool where I came from in the US. Interestingly, when I got to Graded, I realized that I was far from being the most intelligent student. My classmates were excited about learning! They considered it "the thing to do," not some terrible burden. That created a fascinating atmosphere for me. Now that I think back, I had extraordinary teachers - so devoted! I remember Mr. Bobbert, Mr. Lanoue... They were just fantastic!
What did you most love about Graded?
I loved the mix of people. I had the chance to meet international students at The American School in Santos, but Graded was unique. There was such a range of backgrounds at Graded and so many opportunities to meet people! My first friends were those whom everybody cheerfully referred to as the "missionary kids." I met many of them through drama class. Everyone was so amicable, and I remember continually feeling very welcomed and excited to go to school. Honestly, I'm very jealous of the international students I met in eighth grade who had been at Graded from a young age. Lucky them! Graded is special to me because while I studied at the school for only two years, being there allowed me to see that you could have different teenage years than those I had envisioned. You would get the support and encouragement you needed to do well and achieve your goals. Graded opened up the world further to me.
Was there a particular class and teacher at Graded that you loved?
Absolutely. I think everybody loved English teacher Mr. Bobbert. He covered such a wide variety of texts. We read and presented "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and I had the opportunity to play the role of Puck. In the same class, we analyzed advertisements. The sophisticated manner he taught us to examine ads has never left me. As a teacher myself, I often find myself looking back at how he taught many (rowdy) students with such ease and how he made everything fun and interesting. I think, "Wow, that must've been hard..." but there was never any sign from him of anything other than pure enjoyment.
Elizabeth (on the far right) in a Graded play as Mrs. Woodrow Wilson, 1970. (Elizabeth's friend, Carlasue Henderson, is in the center holding a bouquet. Elizabeth wishes she knew where to find her. Carlasue's brother also went to Graded.)
When did you discover your love of languages?
I have always had an interest in languages. My family lived abroad in Australia, where I was exposed to a different kind of English. I also took a few Spanish classes in the United States, but being in Brazil sparked a new-found love and passion for learning and studying new languages. It was the first time I had the chance to be fully immersed in a new culture and almost forced to learn the language, and it excited me. I remember carrying around a yellow Langenscheidt English-Portuguese dictionary with me everywhere I went. I instantly became my mother's translator -- communicating with our "empregada" and chauffeur on her behalf, and accompanying her on grocery store trips to Pão de Açúcar, where I helped her order "carne moída." I realized then, living in Brazil and learning Portuguese, that I had found my "thing." At the time, I did not envision that I would work with and focus on ancient languages, but I realized that languages would be a part of my future.
Tell us a little bit about your undergraduate education. Where and what did you study?
By now, you can probably tell my family moved around quite a bit: from Brazil, to Australia, and Saint Croix in the Virgin Islands. I had become used to change and had grown to love traveling and discovering new places. I started my undergraduate education at Windham College in Vermont, mainly because it allowed its students to travel and study overseas. As an avid reader and writer, it was also a unique experience to attend a college where American-Canadian novelist and screenwriter John Irving taught. Taking full advantage of the study-abroad opportunity, I traveled to Switzerland. There, I met a professor from another Vermont-based college, Marlboro College. I ended up transferring there to complete my undergraduate degree. At Marlboro, I was ecstatic when I realized I could study everything I loved: languages, philosophy, poetry, and drama. I fell in love with the school and its curriculum. Marlboro also allowed me to reconnect with Lisa James, a dear friend I met at Graded and with whom I am still in touch with today!
After receiving your bachelor's degree, what was your motivation for pursuing a PhD?
Like I mentioned earlier, I always loved going to school, learning new things, and being in a classroom environment. Whenever I thought about my future, it always involved a school scenario. Through the years, I realized I wanted to become a classics professor, and the only way to become one was by getting a PhD. Had I known how hard it would be, I might not have made such a quick decision to pursue one, but I have not regretted it. I got a tremendous tenure-track teaching job at the University of Missouri after earning my PhD, and realized I loved teaching! I also realized that the next step in my teaching career would not be a walk in the park. Professors are required to study, research, and publish regularly. In doing that, I noticed that the more I focused on my specialty, the less free time I had to learn about exciting new subjects, and I missed that. Ultimately, I made a life-changing decision. After becoming engaged to a Wesleyan professor, another classicist, I chose to resign from my full-time teaching career and move to Middletown, CT, to get married and start a family.
What are you working on now?
When I moved to Middletown, I became a part-time professor at Wesleyan University and have taught there for the past 30 years. Throughout my student and teaching years, I developed an aspiration to become a writer. I took advantage of what Wesleyan had to offer and met incredible professors in the English department. When I spoke about my desire to start writing, my colleagues encouraged me to give it a try, so I did. I wrote, I got published, and I worked my way into teaching a nonfiction writing course. I just finished writing a book chapter about teaching classics in prison.
Tell us a little bit about your involvement with Wesleyan's Center for Prison Education. How did you get involved, and how has this experience impacted you?
Teaching in prison has been the most important experience of my life, along with my role as a mother. I got involved in the prison teaching program through a Wesleyan undergraduate student, who got permission from the Department of Corrections to start tutoring at a Cheshire Correctional, a maximum-security facility for men. Once established, the program grew, and Wesleyan joined forces with Bard College's Prison Initiative, a pioneer in prison education programs across the United States. Today, the prison teaching program has become highly competitive, with more than 60 teachers.
I had never visited a prison before joining the program, so I didn't know what to expect from this new experience. It turned out to be extraordinary! These inmates are among some of my loveliest, best students. One of the most moving things about teaching in prison is that you have the opportunity to coexist with people who come from different backgrounds and have undergone profound transformation without much encouragement or assistance, except perhaps, from one another. It is a unique atmosphere. On top of that, meeting these incredibly intelligent prisoners who have had little-to-no access to education made me reflect and wonder, "What path would they have perhaps taken if they had had a better education?"
It was interesting to learn about the connections inmates made between the literature we read together in class and their lives before prison. For example, we read Sophocles' Greek tragedy Ajax, whose eponymous character is a hero in Homer's Iliad. In the play, other Greek warriors show disrespect, and he decides to take his own life. Before doing so, the community begs him not to leave them, claiming they will be helpless without him. I remember clearly when, at that moment, one of the prisoners in class slammed his book on the desk angrily and said, "Each one of us has had someone tell us, 'Please don't do this...' And we didn't pay any attention at the time. Now, look at where we all are." It was also curious to see how distressed these men were about the harm caused to the communities in Greek tragedies. They have been the "bad guys" in their communities, causing harm to their families and friends, of which they are now fully aware. Their insights amazed me.
Besides teaching at Cheshire Correctional, I have also volunteered at a local juvenile lock-up and a state prison for women, where I taught writing. The teaching experiences I had in these prisons have impacted me tremendously because they have allowed me to see and understand the "other side." Inmates were astounded that somebody would dedicate their free time, out of their own free will, to come in and teach them. It has been eye-opening to see the prisoners' transformations and has caused me to reflect upon my own life.
Tell us a bit about the other social initiatives in which you've been involved.
I joined an incredible group called the Middletown Racial Justice Coalition, led entirely by people of color. I thought I knew a lot about racism and knew what it felt like to be a minority, having lived in a place like Saint Croix where whites are the minority. After joining, I realized that I knew close to nothing. I have learned so much through this group, and it has been eye-opening.
I also ran for the Board of Education here in town many years ago, where I served for about five years. Because I was kicked out of school all those years ago in Santos, I made a point of going to all expulsion hearings and pleading for the person by claiming that 13-year-olds have terrible judgment. "Don't kick someone out of school because they decided to do something to show off to their friends," I said. "You'll give them a terrible life if you do that." Often, I'd say, "I am the only PhD within a hundred-mile radius who got kicked out of junior high," and it would bring some attention - so I'm very proud of that accomplishment.
What are some of your hobbies?
From the time I was old enough to hold a book, reading became my number one hobby. I love it! Last year, I took up my first art class ever - drawing - and had a fabulous time. Of course, studio art is out now because we can't be physically together in the studio, but I hope to take that up again. My favorite way of relaxing is to have people over for dinner, where we just sit around, talk, laugh, and tell stories.
What do you miss the most about Brazil?
"A praia e a gente." I miss the opportunity to speak a foreign language, too. When I was in college, I learned German, and that overtook my Portuguese. However, one of my great triumphs was being asked on a trip to Portugal if I was Brazilian because I had a Brazilian accent. I was fluent at the time. That was a thrill!