This post was adapted from a speech written by Head of School Nancy Starmer and delivered during the Opening Assembly on September 1, 2014.
Those of us who live year round on the GS campus know that it’s hard not to pay attention occasionally to our squirrel friends. I, personally, have an ambivalent relationship with them. Like many of you, I’ve been startled often by a squirrel flying at me out of a dumpster and they’ve eaten holes in the screens of my house and gotten into the kitchen cupboards. I’ve chased them around the dining hall in the summer when they’ve just waltzed in through an open door, and just this past summer I found myself having to apologize on behalf of all of GS for the behavior of our squirrels when one ate through the zipper in a house guest’s suitcase to get at a granola bar she’d stored in the front compartment for her trip home (she’d left the suitcase out on the driveway for five minutes while she waited for her ride and in that brief period of time the squirrel managed to completely destroy the bag.)
On the other hand, I’ve also chuckled at their antics, like the time that I saw a GS squirrel snatch a slice of pizza away from an unsuspecting student and carry it–in its entirety–all the way up a tree. And yesterday I found myself realizing that our squirrels, for all their annoying behaviors and amusing antics, may also have something important to teach all of us. It’s that lesson that I want to pass along to all of you as we start a new year together.
For many years, scientists believed that that human beings were born with certain immutable capabilities, that genius was born into us (or not), and that while parents and schools could help children reach their potential, that potential was fixed at birth. As a result, schools labeled students as having above average, average, and below average intelligence and organized the curriculum around those designations. (This is where special “gifted and talented” programs came from, and there are still many around today.)
Recently, however, neuroscientists have proved those assumptions wrong. Today we know through evidence that wasn’t possible to get fifteen years ago (because it involved brain scans that weren’t available then), that intelligence in fact isn’t fixed, that throughout our lives, well into old age, new synapses continue to grow in our brains and we can actually become more intelligent over time. We’re even coming to understand (in ways that again we didn’t have access to before) the processes and conditions necessary for creating this growth, which is very exciting for educators.
But our long held assumptions about intelligence get in our way of applying this new knowledge. I would guess that there are many of you who continue to believe that if you don’t do well it’s because you just aren’t smart enough to learn the material. All the time we still hear the comment “I’m just not good at (fill in the blank). Lots of us are still afraid of taking risks and experimenting because we don’t want to appear dumb. If you’ve heard your parents say “you’re so smart” (something parents often say to their children when they want to praise them for getting a good grade or mastering a new task), you may be afraid that if you do fail, you’ll let them down or prove that you really aren’t smart. Here at GS and in schools all over the US educators are struggling with how to change this mindset. This is where the squirrel comes in.
Before meeting yesterday morning I took a walk in Core Creek Park and on the way home a squirrel ran past me with a huge black walnut the size and color of a tennis ball in its mouth. The walnut was probably three times the size of the squirrel’s head, no kidding, and I found myself wondering how long it must have taken him even to get that nut off the ground.
I’m sure that squirrel never looked at the nut and said “that’s impossible, I could never do that!” He didn’t worry about whether the other squirrels would think he was dumb if he couldn’t do it, or if he’d look ridiculous trying. He didn’t say to himself “clearly I’m just not smart enough to figure this out” when he couldn’t make it work on the first try, nor did he rationalize that he really didn’t need this nut, there were lots of other things around to eat so why should he waste his time on this one or worry about whether it would help him in the future. He just gave in to his nature and went after that nut until he got it. Like the quote said, he opened himself to the possibility of that nut and nature and the universe conspired to help him.
This year at GS I want all of you to open yourselves up to the possibility of learning, in your classes, in your activities, in sports, from each other. I want you to take on challenges even if they feel as big in proportion to what you imagine your capabilities to be as a tennis-ball sized nut is to a squirrel. And I want you to know that if you do, if you can persist like the squirrel did until you master something, if you catch yourselves when you feel yourselves saying “That’s impossible” or “I’m just not smart enough,” not only will you increase your intelligence and grow those new synapses, but the universe of GS—your teachers, your advisors, your coaches, your dorm staff, your student leaders, your classmates, maybe even our squirrels—will all conspire to help you.
These are my hopes for all of you this year and I feel blessed to have the opportunity to share them with you.
See what Chloe (from the Class of 2016) has to say about squirrels in her post “Speaking of Squirrels.”