Meera Viswanathan’s international odyssey did not entail braving Sirens or a Cyclops, but it is remarkable all the same. She emigrated from India with her mother and entered public school in Los Angeles before the age of 5, before she could speak English. She also had a cleft lip that required surgery.
Within several months she was fluent, chatty as you please, thanks in large part to an ambitious regimen of TV viewing—1960s fare such as “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.”
Soon Viswanathan was reading above grade level and bound for a distinguished career in academia: three degrees from Stanford University, including a doctorate, followed by a distinguished career as a tenured associate professor of comparative literature and East Asian studies at Brown University ― where, as one colleague put it, she “mesmerized generations of students.” Along the way, in addition to conquering English, Japanese, German and French, she mastered a number of dead languages, including Old Norse.
Then her epic journey took an abrupt turn. In 2016, at age 60, Meera Viswanathan left Brown and its urbane environs after three decades for The Ethel Walker School, a smallish all-girls academy with a minuscule endowment in the wilds of Simsbury. She became its first head of school of color ― one of less than a handful at northeastern prep schools.
While former colleagues at Brown were shaking their heads at her mystifying move, Ms. Vis, as the Walker girls call her, got busy. There was a curriculum to update and augment; faculty to hire — natural turnover can vary from five to 10 teachers annually; funds to be raised, and most important: girls to inspire and embolden.
“I want girls to become strong, to be resilient and questioning,” she said in her office, where a large portrait of Ethel Walker looms behind her desk. She also wants them to fail. “I want them to be capable of failing, and failing, and failing. Girls have to get over the fear of failure and public humiliation. They need to fail, then learn from failure; then do it again and do it until they get it.”
At an all-school meeting, on a blustery morning on the 175-acre campus, the results of single-sex education were on display. The girls ran the show, which was attended by more than 250 students and faculty. A senior gave a moving speech about her seven years at the school (Walker includes grades 6 through 12, the last four for boarders as well as day students); a number of girls recited poetry from memory, and others made various announcements, including about athletic victories, which drew the most applause. One presenter wore a very funny Christmas hat.
It was an impressive showing. Without exception the girls were poised, and more than a few clearly were enjoying their moment in the sun. Ms. Vis had a mere cameo, at the tail end. The top-down private school model, here at least, is as dead as the dinosaurs.
Brown professor Arnold Weinstein — who was on the committee that hired Viswanathan in 1983, and who is a longtime friend — thinks her career move makes perfect sense. He pointed to her experience in Jordan, where in 2007 she and her husband, Eric Widmer, established a coed preparatory school at the behest of King Abdullah II. Viswanathan designed the curriculum for King’s Academy and Widmer was its founding headmaster. The couple married in 1991 when both were at Brown; he is also Deerfield Academy’s former head of school.
“It was truly astounding what they accomplished in Jordan, in a culture that was hostile to many of the things they were doing,” Weinstein said. “Meera did wonderful things over there, and it helps explain why the move to Walker is such a logical one. It gives her the opportunity to do things she couldn’t do at Brown.”
What Viswanathan is doing at Walker is making the curriculum more global. She and her husband co-taught new courses last year, on East Asian history and culture in the fall and on South and Southeast Asia in the spring. Tenth-grade English is focused on world literature, and a new course on tropical ecology encompasses original research to be conducted in Panama over spring break. Additional outreach to the greater world is in the works. She brought back French and hired a professor away from Yale to head that department.
Ms. Vis is also busy raising money and that may be her greatest challenge. Walker’s endowment is a pittance by private school standards, $25 million vs. some boys’ preps whose larders top an astonishing $1 billion. Despite no experience as a fundraiser, she is undaunted and has a robust 11-person institutional advancement office, all female, to lean on. Together they have made significant progress: The endowment was only $17 million when she arrived in 2016, and her ambitious goal is to reach $100 million in just five years.
Money, of course, is key to the future of institutions like Walker. Private girls’ schools took a big hit when most of their male counterparts went coed in the 1970s: some disappeared altogether, or merged with the boys, as Rosemary Hall did with Choate, and essentially disappeared as well. But in recent decades there has been an upswing in new same-sex academies, according to the National Coalition of Girls’ Schools, which reports that of the 375 female schools in the United States, 50 have been founded since 1991.
One reason for this is the reams of research clearly documenting the phenomenon of girls doing better when they are learning together: They evince more confidence and are far more likely, for example, to pursue and excel in the traditional male bastions of math and science.
Meera Viswanathan remembers vividly “going quiet” at age 12 and right through her bright college years. She was always as smart as anyone in the room but she let others, most often male students, do the talking. At Brown, she did her own gender research: “I could tell within a week of the start of classes which of my female students had been to an all-girls school and which to a coed school simply by watching and listening to them. It was clear from their confidence, their comfort in their own skin, and their ability to persist in their arguments without capitulating, without apologizing, without hesitating.”
If Meera Viswanathan expects her charges to be bold — challenging them to be doers as well as thinkers — she requires no less of herself. There are aspects of Ethel Walker, with its athletic ethos and impressive equestrian program, that she still needs to master, such as the arcane rules of field hockey.
And, at age 62, Ms. Vis is learning to canter — and before long she fully expects to be riding her horse over the jumps.