Open Hearts

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authored by Head of School Fran Bisselle

Not that long ago, I had the opportunity to hear Jon Meacham, a presidential historian, speak in Durham, North Carolina. A former executive editor and executive vice president at Random House, Meacham is a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and a contributing writer to The New York Times and Time magazine. He is the author of several books including American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House and The Soul of America.

Meacham told a story about what he called the most extraordinary piece of writing of any presidential library anywhere. It was a letter that President George H.W. Bush wrote to his parents in the summer of 1958, four years after his daughter Robin's death from leukemia. Meacham was hired to write Bush’s presidential biography, and as part of the process to get to know Bush and his life, he asked the former president to read the letter. 

“There is about our house a need. We need some soft blonde hair to offset those crew cuts. We need a doll house to stand firm against our forts and racquets and thousand baseball cards. We need someone who’s afraid of frogs. We need a little one who can kiss without leaving egg or jam or gum. We need a girl…..We had one once — she’d fight and cry and play and make her way, just like the rest. But there was about her a certain softness. She was patient. Her hugs were a just little less wiggly…..But she is still with us. We need her and yet we have her. We can’t touch her and yet we can feel her. We hope she’ll stay in our house for a long, long time. Love, Pop."

At the end of reading the letter, the 90-year-old Bush broke down in tears. Bush’s executive assistant was extremely annoyed with Meacham as the former President was crying quite hard. She asked, “Why did you ask the President to read this letter?”  Meacham said, “If you want to know someone’s heart…” and then Bush finished Meacham’s sentence…“You have to know what breaks it.”

Hathaway Brown’s distinguished academic program trains our future’s finest minds and empowers girls to put knowledge in action. We know our students will create solutions to the most pressing problems our world is facing, and we want every single one of them to be ferociously successful.  And yet to be truly successful, their education must touch not only their minds, but their hearts. They, like the adults that serve as their role models, must know their own humanity and honor the humanity of every person with whom they come in contact. They must have those soft skills like empathy, authentic listening, and instinctual kindness, and they must care for their whole selves. History has taught us that we will be defined by how we love and how we use our hearts when we lead, and this guides our mission of learning not just for school but for life.

I have been wondering how we rise above the current high anxiety environment and confounding instinct of tribalism—the desire to be surrounded by sameness, which is comforting, predictable, and reassuring. In a world where COVID, health emergencies, gun violence, and climatic events (just to name a few) create unpredictability and thus angst, it is certainly understandable. But history has taught us the critical importance of surrounding ourselves with diversity — diversity of things such as thought, perspectives, activities, and even self-care. If we embrace lifelong learning, then we must engage with all forms of diversity and allow for our presuppositions to be challenged. 

Leaning into different voices and maybe even experiencing cognitive friction are healthy ways to grow. As a historian, I always appreciated that Thomas Jefferson had a marble bust of his political opposite Alexander Hamilton in the front foyer of his beloved Monticello as a reminder of how important differing perspectives were to his creativity and to his belief in the open space of democracy.

We begin this year with our hearts open!