Megan Breidigan, a sophomore at Eastern Mennonite University, talks with her classmate Jane Burkholder during a coffee time at Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community (VMRC). Both were students in Professor Marti Eads' global literature class in spring 2018, which brought together undergraduates and VMRC residents. Eads hopes to attract more residents to a spring semester 2019 drama class. (Photos by Andrew Strack)

‘Love and friendship’ across generations: literature class includes undergrads and retirement community residents

In a way, the theme of last spring’s global literature class – love and friendship – wasn’t just a matter for required reading. Instead, it became the course experience itself, for the Eastern Mennonite University undergraduate students, their classmates from the nearby Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community (VMRC), and their professor.

Three of those students – sophomore Megan Breidigan and VMRC residents James Bomberger and Jane Burkholder – and Professor Marti Eads comprised a panel to share about their experiences during an October Wednesday morning coffee time at VMRC’s Village Hall.

From left: Jane Burkholder, Megan Breidigan, James Bomberger and Professor Marti Eads speak to residents at Virginia Mennonite Retirement Community about their shared learning experience in an EMU global literature class.

“I’m definitely glad that my first experience in a collegiate literature class was so unique,” said Breidigan, an English education major. “It’s really nice to be able to hear so many different perspectives from people who obviously are not my age, did not come from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, maybe did not grow up Mennonite, do not go to EMU. Just hearing how people perceive the world and the literature from the world from their own background and being able to share that candidly was really a valuable experience for me.”

The course explored works from across the globe, linked with that theme of love and friendship: Miriama Ba’s So Long A Letter (Waveland Press, 2012), Yasmina Khadra’s The Swallows of Kabul (Anchor, 2005), Lynn Nottage’s Ruined (Theatre Communications Group, 2009), and more.

Burkholder joined the class because as a child she always enjoyed literature, particularly Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verse. Reading the books assigned for the class was “quite an exposure,” she said.

“They had a lot of love and friendship, but they have a lot of the other side of life, too, and it was a challenge to realize what some people are going through,” she said. “I grew up sheltered and I expect to be sheltered for the rest of my life because God promises his presence and his wisdom, but these authors are dealing with good and evil, also. To understand their viewpoint was just broadening for me. … What I learned intrigued me.”

In the panel Eads confessed that she was nervous at the course’s outset to see Bomberger’s name on the roster. He had taught English at EMU from 1961-98, and she worried that his expertise would “provide contrast that revealed my limited capacity.” However, an acquaintance assured her that Bomberger would be “totally supportive … and that was absolutely the truth.” In fact, she said, he and his classmates were “always unfailingly affirming.”

Professor Marti Eads will teach a spring semester 2019 class in drama with undergraduates and VMRC residents.

Bomberger fondly recalled the day the class read The Importance of Being Earnest in a reader’s theater format, and had a tea party with sparkling grape juice, sandwiches and pastries. Eads’ 10-year-old daughter, present that session, “read better than the rest of us,” he said.

“I found it stimulating to be a student again,” Bomberger reflected later. “Marti is a great teacher.”

Breidigan told about the class field trip to the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, a day away from campus that in advance didn’t seem exciting but turned out “a lovely experience.” The backstage tour, history lesson, costumes and performance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead were “awesome,” and then the group went to dinner together.

“It was nice to fellowship and engage and have fun outside the classroom together,” Breidigan said.

Eads took away her own “sweet memories” from the class. One 89-year-old was having problems with her feet, yet made great effort “always to be there” – and on one day gave the class a mini-lecture about articulation.

“That’s a really valuable life lesson,” Eads said, “that I think college students were more likely to take seriously coming from somebody in her place in life than they might have been from me.”

The generational blend resulted in higher quality of work, too, she observed: “I thought maybe the EMU group truly was exceptional in this class because the level of work was really high, but sometimes I thought having these relationships with some sort of grandparental figures was also really stimulating or encouraging. I think everybody wanted to do a good job for everybody else because this was an experience of deep friendship, and I think the undergrads wanted to make the VMRC residents proud. And the reverse might have been happening, too.”

After the final exam, Eads invited the class to her home for dinner, “probably, honestly, the best meal I had all semester,” Breidigan said.

“It was a tremendous evening,” Burkholder said. “The view from their deck is just lovely, down through the trees. I enjoyed being out there very much.”

Eads is again planning a course for EMU students and VMRC residents, this time a drama class scheduled for the upcoming spring semester.

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