writings and Reflections

To Flourish: Let Us Be Gardeners Not Carpenters
Tara Christie Kinsey

During the first week of school, I received the following note from a member of the Hewitt faculty:

“I wanted to write simply to express my tremendous sense of gratitude for teaching at Hewitt.... I am grateful to be with Hewitt’s community because the sense of purpose goes beyond running a great school. The community thinks and feels deeply about how to best nurture and offer room for girls to flourish.”

At Thanksgiving, you might reasonably expect me to say a few words about this teacher’s gratitude for being a part of Hewitt’s teaching and learning community. Although I do not take for granted this expression of gratitude, today I will focus on how Hewitt “nurture[s] and offer[s] room for girls to flourish.”

To flourish is a most befitting verb to describe our collective purpose–our ultimate why–at Hewitt. Many of you know that as an English teacher and scholar, I love to probe the etymology of words in order to consider the many subtle meanings behind them. Well, true to form, one Sunday afternoon, I curled up with a hot cup of coffee and a blanket and lost myself in my enormous Oxford English Dictionary--the one with the tiny print and magnifying glass--and I wanted to share with you what I found.

To flourish is a fascinating verb that comes from the Latin florere, which means “to bloom, blossom, flower” and “to flourish” and “be prosperous.” To flourish means to grow vigorously, to attain full development, to abound, to shoot forth, and to thrive--from the inside out. Flourish is also a noun, meaning a “confident movement made so that other people notice,” like that time earlier this fall when a Hewitt kindergartner reached the top of the stairs to the front door and threw one leg and both hands out to the side with a cheerful “Ta da!” before shaking my hand and heading inside. That was quite a flourish!

And as I continued to contemplate how our school inspires vigorous growth and confident movement, my thoughts turned to The Gardener and the Carpenter, a book by Alison Gopnik, a professor of psychology and philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley, who captures two very different ways of engaging young people. The carpenter hammers away to mold an outcome that is fixed from the very beginning. A skillful carpenter executes a plan, and while the outcome may be beautiful, the carpenter assumes only one correct outcome, only one way of achieving success, and the end product has no voice or agency in its own transformation.

And then there are the gardeners. Gardeners plant seeds, and then they labor and toil to create the conditions in which the seeds can flourish. They fertilize the soil and keep a careful eye on the levels of water, light, and temperature. But, over time, they also step back and allow those seeds to grow, to unearth, to flourish, from the inside out. As they are meant to. As you are meant to. As you decide. To flourish is to know what it means to live awake and present, a fully conscious participant in your own life’s great unfolding. 

A carpenter’s product is ultimately a reflection of the work of the carpenter. By contrast, a gardener’s product is ultimately about the beauty of the growth itself. 

While writing this, I suddenly realized that, in this very room exactly one year ago, I read you the following line from Marcel Proust: “Let us be grateful to the people who make us happy; they are the charming gardeners who make our souls blossom.”

This return to gardening is no accident. For at Hewitt, we are gardeners in a city of carpenters. We are deeply invested in nurturing the kind of soil in which you will thrive, but the difference is that we know that we do not, cannot, and should not control the outcome. 

To flourish means that you are engaged in your world, that you have good relationships, that you feel accomplished, and--above all--that your life is connected to a purpose that is bigger than you. I like to think that if there is a sacred inner core of Hewitt, it is this wholehearted commitment to nurturing the kind of soil in which students, faculty, staff, parents, and indeed the school itself can flourish.

So, in closing, I am grateful to the teacher who inspired today’s reflection. I am grateful to all of our teachers who dedicate their life’s work to our students’ transformation over time. I am grateful to the parents who entrust us with their daughter’s education. I am grateful to the alumnae who come back and generously give back to strengthen future Hewitt generations. And most of all, I am grateful to you, our students, for inspiring us to flourish each and every day so that you can flourish too. This Thanksgiving, let us be grateful for that. 

Dr. Kinsey delivered these remarks at Hewitt's 2017 Thanksgiving assembly. 

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