Decades after hanging up her pointe shoes — seemingly for good — Jill Smith donned a leotard again and reconnected with one of her true loves: ballet.
For most people, the decision to take up a hobby last practiced in their teens would be daunting, if not terrifying. Smith felt the same way, but decided the awkwardness of her first few lessons would be worth it. In her 40s, Smith adopted an “if not now, then when?” attitude that she hopes to carry for the rest of her life.
“My strategy is to do the things that maybe scare me a little bit, especially as I get older,” Smith said. “My tendency, like with most people, is to withdraw from anything that looks really horribly scary, which can be good, but it can also be limiting.”
It’s the same message she hopes to impart to younger generations in her work at Hoquiam High School and through volunteering in the community — follow your passions or you’ll regret it later.
Back to high school
Smith has spent nearly her entire adult life at Hoquiam High School — she started her career as an English teacher, a job she held for 14 years, and has been a counselor for nine years.
While the transition between the two positions was daunting, Smith said she has no regrets because she feels she’s doing exactly what she’s meant to. And by following her own dreams and passions, she hopes to inspire students to do the same.
“(Graduating students) are separating from their families, the goal is that they’ll be able to leave their home and pursue their dreams, whether that’s college, some other kind of training or work,” Smith said. “And it’s about finding out what it looks like for them.”
“It’s terrifying to leave the comfort and safety of your home for the first time,” she added.
To a large extent, her job is about asking questions. What do students want to do? Where do they see themselves in five or 10 years? Do they still have the same dreams they had as children?
Her strategy is to find out what her students are excited to talk about — writing, acting, sports and anything in between. She remembers one student who loved podcasts, but since there aren’t many professional podcasters on the Harbor, she went with the next best thing: the radio station.
“I called up Pat Anderson at the radio station to see if they would take an intern, to see if we could get this kid connected somehow,” Smith said. “And that later led to a job (for the student).”
In order to find those types of experiences for students, Smith said she has to rely on members of the community, and is a firm believer in the adage, “It takes a village to raise a child.”
“I know it’s a cliche, but it’s a cliche for a reason. In my experience, it works,” she said.
Living in the close-knit Grays Harbor community, Smith is given an opportunity to see how her students turned out. She sees them at the grocery store, community events and all over town.
“I’m always saying, ‘Well there’s so-and-so,’ ” Smith said. “Some of them are police officers or nurses. It’s neat. They’re out there doing really cool things. I don’t own their success by any means, but it’s nice that they’re out there helping people, doing what they’re meant to do.”
Lifelong Miss Grays Harbor
As a senior in high school, Smith was crowned Miss Grays Harbor. And after a long hiatus, she re-entered the pageant world five years ago to host Miss Grays Harbor’s Outstanding Teen. She’s become increasingly immersed in the program, serving as a mentor for the young women, helping with mock interviews and preparing contestants for the statewide competition.
She said it’s not her goal to program the young women into the perfect contestants — she’s more interested in helping them discover their own brand of confidence. The interview portion of the competition is especially important for confidence building, she said.
“It’s a great experience and a really transferable skill,” Smith said. “I love it.”
To some extent, Smith credits her success to lessons she learned as Miss Grays Harbor. Before competing, she was shy and had a hard time addressing crowds and authority figures.
“I always wanted to work in education, but I think I needed something to force me to become outgoing,” Smith said. “I think that through doing Miss Grays Harbor, I got some of the skills that I needed, particularly the ability to be in front of a crowd and talk.”
The Miss Grays Harbor competition has undergone a few changes since Smith was a contestant. One-piece swimsuits aren’t as popular, and the young women are now required to have a “platform” — a cause they advocate for in the community. For example, current Miss Grays Harbor Connie Morgan works with the Wounded Warrior Project, a program designed to help injured service members.
“The platform requirement has been a really significant change,” Smith said. “When I was a contestant, many of the girls had platforms, I had a platform. But it wasn’t required. But now we see these girls doing some really amazing work. Maybe it was happening all along, but it wasn’t official so people didn’t really know about it.”
Conquering fears through dance
But asking her students and Miss Grays Harbor contestants to take risks would be hypocritical if she weren’t doing so herself — and that’s part of the reason she took up ballet again.
Smith said she had some qualms about dancing with a room full of teens, but the young women were so supportive and inviting she couldn’t help but feel at home.
She began dancing again at the now closed Lighthouse Ballet Academy, and moved to Gayle Russell Dance Academy in Aberdeen and Johansen Olympia Dance Center.
She’s even managed to get her husband, Clint &the Eastwoods musician Brian Smith, interested in dance. Jill Smith said her spouse readily accompanies her to Pacific Northwest Ballet performances, even though their tastes differ.
“I think the best way to describe it is I’m classical music and he’s rock ’n’ roll,” Smith said. “But he willingly came along, and I think he enjoyed it, too.”
The effort goes both ways. Jill Smith can often be found at her husband’s shows, supporting him from the crowd.
For now, she’s not done trying to conquer her fears. She’s not sure what’s next on the list, but she’s working on it.
“I’m not ready to jump out of a plane yet, I probably won’t ever be because I’m still afraid of heights, but I’d like to keep stepping out of my comfort zone,” Smith said.
Current city: Aberdeen
Education: Montesano High School, Grays Harbor College, Western Washington University (Bachelor’s degree), University of Portland (Master’s degree), Saint Martin’s University (counseling Educational Staff Associate certification).
Career: Counselor and former English teacher at Hoquiam High School
Spouse: Brian Smith, married for 22 years
Family: Parents Don and Jacqueline Cole, sister Stacy Swinhart
Other: Miss Grays Harbor 1986, Miss Whatcom County 1989