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Reese Witherspoon '94 highlights bright ideas and curiosity in surprise all-school assembly visit


“Remember: Your imagination is infinite. The possibilities are limitless. 

Go create a better world.”

~ Reese Witherspoon ’94, plaque in the Bullard Bright IDEA Lab

 

Reese Witherspoon always knew she wanted to be a part of a bigger story.

Drawn to books, she often wandered into Margaret Renkl’s classroom during lunch or after school. The Harpeth Hall English teacher, who would later become a New York Times columnist, helped Reese draw the parallels between what students read in school and what was happening in the world outside those walls.

Reese relished those conversations. She was endlessly curious. “I had a million questions,” she said. And through each new book or piece of literature, she sought answers to propel her forward.

That search for knowledge continued as she began her acting career. Ms. Witherspoon made a name for herself on screen as an Academy Award-winning actress and producer, and she transformed her place in Hollywood from movie and television star to author and business leader. Just as she had as a student at Harpeth Hall, she continued to ask good questions. 

Then, one day, she asked a question and didn’t get the answer she sought. 

She wondered aloud why Hollywood didn’t make more movies about women. Writing about women wasn’t a fresh idea, she was told.

She disagreed. Maybe a man writing a woman’s perspective wasn’t new, but she knew that women had their own stories to tell. So, Ms. Witherspoon came up with an idea and took a bold step toward a solution. She founded her own media company called Hello Sunshine with the sole purpose to shift the narrative for women as they strive to claim an equal place in every conversation and endeavor.

In a career built on creating her own opportunities, it was one of many bright ideas. Now, Ms. Witherspoon seeks to inspire more ideas in the very place where her own curiosity was cultivated — at Harpeth Hall. 

The Class of 1994 graduate made a surprise appearance at an all-school assembly this month. As Ms. Witherspoon peeked out around the curtain on the theatre stage, students sprang out of their seats shrieking in excitement at seeing the on-screen icon in person.

Ms. Witherspoon met that enthusiasm with the authentic energy that makes her so relatable to the next generation of female leaders. 

She told stories about her time at Harpeth Hall where she learned physics lessons about velocity from Dr. Heath Jones on the tennis courts, analyzed stage acting and directing in Mr. Peter Goodwin’s Film Studies class, and wrote the longest paper of her life in Dr. Art Echerd’s European History class. (A paper longer than any she would ever later write at Stanford University.)

“There was just so much to learn back then,” Ms. Witherspoon said. “And there is even more now.”

'Push your own boundaries'

That, she said, is why it was important to her to support the creation of Harpeth Hall’s new Bullard Bright IDEA Lab.

“We are living in an incredible time of acceleration. In technology, in medicine, in art — there’s just a massive amount of change,” Ms. Witherspoon said. “Life is moving very, very fast. … There are many possibilities out there, and it all just depends on one thing. Your curiosity.

“... So I encourage you to get curious, use this time at Harpeth Hall and in the Bright IDEA Lab to push your own boundaries, try to learn about something new even if you think you’re not good at it. Try to learn podcasting, or about robotics, or the culinary arts, or engineering. Make sure you share what you are learning with your friends. Encourage people to join you and really share your ideas.”

And, she said, don’t be afraid if you don’t succeed at everything. Though she was a solid student at Harpeth Hall, Ms. Witherspoon didn’t exactly excel in all subjects. Namely, she said with a laugh, calculus.

“One of the wonderful things about this school is I felt safe being able to fail,” she said. “You don’t have to be perfect at everything. Failure is actually a really good thing — especially when you are in a safe place.”

Ms. Witherspoon took what she learned about herself at Harpeth Hall and became a female role model. Renowned for her on-screen performances in Walk the Line, Legally Blonde, Big Little Lies, Little Fires Everywhere, The Morning Show, and more, Ms. Witherspoon’s ambitions have expanded to lift up other women across the globe by elevating their personal experiences. 

She didn’t let the response that telling women’s stories wasn’t a “fresh idea” stop her from trying.

In 2021, Time magazine named Hello Sunshine one of the 100 most influential companies in the world. The company not only discovers and creates content that celebrates women, it is also home to Reese’s Book Club and Reese’s YA Book Club, which elevate the voices and stories of women from all backgrounds. 

Now, Ms. Witherspoon is what she believed she could be — part of the bigger story. And, at Harpeth Hall and beyond, she is encouraging the next generation to do the same.

“The world is only limited by what you let yourself believe about yourself,” she said. “Unless you know what you're good at, you won’t know what you're talented at. So don’t chase your dreams, chase your talents.” 

Through curiosity and bright ideas, she said, “the possibilities are limitless.”