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Bears Repeating from Jess Hill: The surprise ingredient for being smart

Bears Repeating from Jess Hill: The surprise ingredient for being smart
Bears Repeating from Jess Hill: The surprise ingredient for being smart

As we begin a new school year filled with aspirations and expectations, I find myself pondering the meaning of a word that pops up often on school campuses — “smart.” 

By the time we reach adulthood, with our graduation dates far in the rearview, we have enough life experience to appreciate how many ways there are to be smart in the world. We know intelligence stretches beyond a GPA or an SAT or ACT score. Our girls do not have that full picture — yet.

In our opening convocation last week, I urged our students to make their definitions of “smart” as expansive as possible. They intuitively understand that being smart encompasses knowledge, understanding, and skill. Still, seeing those qualities in themselves and the many activities they pursue can be difficult. I reminded them that in all they do — from language translations to lab dissections, from implementing strategy on the soccer field to making people laugh — there are hundreds of ways to be smart. 

Then, I challenged the girls to take their definition of smart even deeper. It has taken me a while and a good bit of pondering, but I believe there is one main ingredient for being smart, and it stems from the idea that being smart also encompasses the ways in which we interact and how we treat each other. Thankfully, this ingredient is something at which every single person can excel.

One afternoon this summer, I was listening to a speech from a university graduation, and the speaker drew a pretty profound conclusion that echoed this idea. 

He asked his audience to think about our base instincts as humans when we encounter a new or unfamiliar person. Perhaps that person is different from us in some way — they don’t laugh at the same jokes, they sound different, they look different, or they act or think differently. When that happens, our first and most base reaction to that person is usually one of two things — judgment or even a little fear because that person is different.

The insensitivity, and sometimes cruelty, that can result indicates our lowest level of thinking and reacting. When we instead respond with empathy and compassion, that requires higher-level thinking. The person in the room who has learned how to overcome the base human instincts and find new ways of thinking is astute and, by my definition, smart. 

That brings me back to the conclusion of this university graduation speaker: “There is one thing that seems to be universally true: the smartest person in the room is most often the kindest person in the room.” In my experience of working with people through the years, I have come to agree. 

Every person in our community has the capacity to be kind. It sometimes takes practice — it often takes intentionality and strength — but we are all capable. And in a world where kindness can be a scarce resource, I think Harpeth Hall girls are just the ones to show off their smarts and supply it.