Robert N. Shapiro

Year of Graduation: 
Robert N. Shapiro and Helen Xiu

"Questions of equality and access are burning hot right now."

Growing up in Houston, Texas, Helen Xiu ’20 remembers being a “really talkative kid,” which wasn’t always a welcome characteristic in a traditional classroom. “I had been taught that speaking too much in class was a bad thing,” she remembers.

When she arrived at Exeter as a prep in the fall of 2016, Xiu had to acclimate to a new kind of classroom experience. “I was [accustomed] to not being noticed by the teacher that much,” she says. “I had to learn Harkness etiquette, and how to present yourself at the table.”

One year later, Xiu roomed with a new lower in Wheelwright Hall. As she watched her roommate go through a similar adjustment, Xiu appreciated how far she had come on her own journey, and how fully she had embraced the Harkness method. It was a meaningful revelation, one that she had the chance to share with former trustee Robert N. Shapiro ’68 when he was on campus for his 50th class reunion that May.

Shapiro had established the Robert N. Shapiro, Class of 1968, Financial Aid Fund in 2012 to provide greater access and opportunity to deserving students. Xiu was the fund’s first beneficiary, and when she wrote a letter of thanks to Shapiro via the school’s Financial Aid Office, he replied to her, suggesting that they connect in person at his reunion so that he could hear firsthand about Xiu’s Exeter experience. They met in Elm Street Dining Hall and have kept in touch by email since then.

A lifelong love of education

Shapiro vividly remembers his own first class at Exeter, a second-level Latin course with David Thomas. As the only ninth-grade boy in the class, he arrived late after having to file out of the Assembly Hall by class, and there were no chairs left at the Harkness table. “There were three chairs with armrests on the sides,” Shapiro recalls. “I sat down in one, and I never moved from that chair. For the entire year, I never sat at the table.”

He still managed to hold his own in that class, an achievement that set the tone for the rest of his Harkness career. “That was trial by fire, even though I didn’t realize it at the time,” Shapiro says. “I had a great time in the classroom at Exeter. It was just about the best experience one could imagine.”

During his senior year, he and a friend convinced one of their teachers to let them lead the discussion in some lower-year English classes. Later, while still an undergrad at Harvard, Shapiro began teaching at Noble and Greenough School, where Ted Gleason, the former minister at Exeter and his Dunbar dorm master, had become the headmaster.

I had a great time in the classroom at Exeter. It was just about the best experience one could imagine.”

After graduation, Shapiro returned to Nobles to teach English, and also taught at  Exeter Summer School, grading his students’ papers in the new Louis Kahn-designed library on campus. Shortly after he completed law school, he became secretary of the Friends of the Academy Library at the invitation of Jackie Thomas, longtime Academy librarian and wife of his former Latin teacher. Shapiro later served as chairman for many years.

Even as Shapiro spent decades practicing law, becoming a partner at the Boston firm Ropes & Gray, he never lost his connection with the world of education. In addition to serving on Exeter’s Board of Trustees from 1988 to 1998, he was a trustee at Nobles for 21 years and currently serves on the board of the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. He is also a longtime trustee of the Peabody Essex Museum, and the new chair of the Handel and Haydn Society Board of Governors.

“Because I admired my teachers so much, I’ve always been interested in teaching,” Shapiro says of his work with educational institutions ranging from the elementary to collegiate level. “All of that wasn’t a big conscious life plan, but grew organically from those first teaching experiences when I was an Exeter student.”

When asked to explain why he chose to establish his namesake fund, Shapiro refers back to the school’s Deed of Gift, signed in 1781. John and Elizabeth Phillips donated their assets to lay the foundation for the Academy, recognizing even then, “the time of youth is the important period.”

“We all know the phrase, ‘youth from every quarter,’” Shapiro adds. “That’s a wonderful late-18th-century phrase from a wonderful late-18th-century document, but it’s as modern now as it ever has been. It’s the heart of the place.”

A lasting connection

During her four years at Exeter, Xiu dove into her studies and activities. She ran the hurdles during winter and spring track; joined Asian Voices; sang with the a cappella group In Essence; worked as a senior layout editor for the PEAN; and became co-head of Christian Fellowship by her senior year. She enjoyed her English and history classes in particular, writing her History 333 paper on the birth of hip-hop in the South Bronx. Her senior meditation, which drew on her research of child psychology during a fall-term course, focused on how our first memories from childhood can shape how we perceive our early lives.

In December, Xiu and Shapiro were able to reconnect during a Zoom call. Now a freshman at Bryn Mawr, Xiu plans to pursue a career in educational equity, an interest she developed while participating in the Exeter Student Service Organization’s Diversity Club and the Exonian Encounter Committee. “I want to do the work to restructure the system,” she says, with an aim to provide all students with equal access to the opportunities, support and tools they need to thrive.

Shapiro is thrilled with Xiu’s plans. “[The] questions of equality and access are burning hot right now,” he says. “Schools … are at the center, but libraries, museums [and] musical organizations ... are all public trusts, and making these amazing institutions truly open and inviting and welcoming — having everybody who’s interested feel a sense of belonging to them — those are really core concepts.”

He and Xiu promised to keep in touch, and Shapiro anticipates meeting the next Exonian to benefit from his namesake fund.

“You blazed a path,” he told Xiu. “Now I can tell your successor about what you’re doing.”

— Sarah Pruitt ’95