Humans of Harker: Closer to perfect

Hannah Lak bridges the differences, one smile at a time

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Humans of Harker: Closer to perfect

"I always start a friendship with a smile. How could I not?" Hannah Lak (12) said.

Kathy Fang

"I always start a friendship with a smile. How could I not?" Hannah Lak (12) said.

Kathy Fang

Kathy Fang

"I always start a friendship with a smile. How could I not?" Hannah Lak (12) said.

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She laughs and pauses, her eyes caught in a thoughtful yet smiling twinkle, before she comes up with an answer to the question. Before she speaks, though, she pauses again, hugging a white fluffy blanket closer around her knees, as if a new idea has suddenly flashed across her mind and she were now caught in the difficult choice between two answers, two possibilities of thought, each as fascinating as the other.

She laughs again and leans back against the white drawers of her bright blue dresser, her smiling eyes searching the ceiling for a straightforward answer that isn’t there.

“I’m a thinker—I think about everything,” she said, laughing as she reflects on her many tangents of thought.

Even as she’s overthinking deep, ponderous questions, Hannah Lak’s (12) smile never fades. It’s a constant feature of her demeanor, whether she’s sitting on the floor of her bedroom, deep in reflection, or laughing with friends in the halls of the RPAC.

“I always start a friendship with a smile,” she said, smiling—as always. “How could I not?”

As inherent to Hannah’s personality as it feels, Hannah hasn’t always recognized the value of a bright smile. It started as an unconscious habit until Hannah’s first set of volleyball tryouts in sixth grade. Though she thought that she wasn’t the best player out of the 70 girls who were there, much to her pleasant surprise, she was chosen for the team—and, because she’s Hannah Lak, she decided to approach her coach and find out why she was chosen.

“She said it was because I always smiled and I would never really stop smiling the whole time I was there, no matter what happened,” Hannah said. “At that point, I really recognized how important smiling can be and how much it can really change your life.”

Since then, Hannah has found that her smile gets her more than just a spot on a team. She’s learned that something as simple as a smile can build connections and relationships with just about anybody she meets.

“It opens all doors and softens all people, and it just makes people trust you more—and I guess love you more, too,” Hannah said. “Because it’s just a way of saying that you’re going to be honest with them or you’re genuinely happy when you’re with them, and I think everybody wants to feel that way.”

From friends to teachers to even strangers, Hannah greets everyone with a smile and almost always receives one in return. Wherever she goes, Hannah is sure to bring light with her wherever she goes, in whatever she does, as her friend of four years Nastya Sushkova (12) describes.

“She’s just this little ray of sunshine,” Nastya said. “Maybe she’s not the loudest one out there, but her actions are definitely the ones that are the loudest, and our [friend] group would definitely not be the same without her.”

After all, no matter the situation, Hannah always strives to maintain her smile, unfazed.

“You’ll never see me frowning,” she said, laughing.

Hannah’s smiling demeanor stems from a deeper conviction in the value of a positive outlook, one that extends beyond mere optimism. At heart, she believes in the idea of hope and improvement, and her optimism is closely tied with her mindset of continuous growth and progress. Whether it be volleyball or harp or acting or even dance, Hannah has allowed herself to be guided by the simple philosophy of a growth mindset through everything that she does.

For instance, when she first started playing club volleyball, Hannah remembers being “the worst server” on the team. She could never hit the ball over the net and clear the serve, and her frustration with herself drove her to practice in every spare moment she could find, hitting ball after ball over a net with her mom at Castillero Middle School’s courts nearby.

“My mom would be on the other side of the net, and she’d just catch the balls as they rolled under. I couldn’t even get it halfway [across the court] starting out, and it was so terrible for me,” she said. “Every single time, I’d fail.”

Hannah’s coaches and teammates also gave her opportunities to serve during games, and though “everybody just knew it was one point down,” as Hannah remembers, she drew encouragement and support from her team to keep working at it throughout the entire season.

Soon enough, with persistent practice, Hannah prevailed, becoming the best server on the team by the next season, and even then, she continued to improve her skills from there. During one particular game later on, she hit 21 serves that the opposing team could not return.

“The only reason why I stopped [serving during that game] was because my team was so surprised [the opposing team] hit the ball back over that they weren’t prepared to return it,” Hannah said.

Hannah’s journey towards the perfection of her volleyball skills reflects her overarching goal to perfect her skills in every field that she explores. This ambition—which Hannah and many others would call “perfectionism” though it really stems from her love of learning—traces its roots all the way back to second grade—in particular, a fellow student who always beat her at reciting the multiplication table.

So when Hannah found out about a summer program called Math Enrichment that would enable her to continue honing her math skills after the school year had come to a close, she eagerly asked her parents to sign her up in hopes that with practice, she could match her fellow student’s abilities and get the right answer first.

“I just really liked getting things right,” she said. “Little second grade me loved always knowing the answers to things and being really quick and being the best, and that doesn’t mean I was always the best but I liked it.”

Being a perfectionist at heart—that does influence my optimism and does benefit me in the long run.”

— Hannah Lak (12)

Hannah pushed herself to pursue perfection throughout much of elementary and middle school, and she remembers consistently being among the top of her class in her academic studies. When she came to Harker, Hannah realized the opportunities that she had missed as a result of her perfectionism—especially the opportunities to step into unfamiliar fields of interest.

Now, four years after her transfer to Harker, Hannah has come to embrace the possibility of expanding her comfort zone, often at the expense of perfection.

“I was a perfectionist for a long part of my life, from when I was born, basically, to the end of middle school,” she said. “When I started in Harker, that’s when I tried to stop being such a perfectionist. I think I still am in many ways—inherently, I think I am, but while I’m in high school, I try to involve my mind and consciously think about how I don’t need to be perfect.”

Even then, the perfectionist in Hannah persists and has actually helped shape Hannah’s never-ending positivity by giving her the drive to go one step further in whatever she’s doing.

“I might be too optimistic at times, but I think that gets me even farther than a lot of people will go,” she said. “The perfectionist part of me tells me where I want to be and how far I really really want to go. In reality, that usually doesn’t come to pass, but I think being a perfectionist at heart—that does influence my optimism and does benefit me in the long run.”

No matter what she does, Hannah always performs—in every sense of the word. Whether it be her athletic pursuits, her musical endeavors or her theatrical career, Hannah’s life revolves around the dualistic idea of performance, of stepping before an audience or a crowd and demonstrating the skills that she’s spent months perfecting—all in a short window of time.

“All of [the activities that I do] are very scary because there’s nothing to show for it, except that one moment,” Hannah said. “Every time I execute any of those things, it shows me to trust myself even further, but I will never trust myself completely—because I’m human.”

Hannah first stepped into the world of theater in her freshman year, when she auditioned for and was cast in the short play “The Internet is Distract—Oh Look, A Kitten!” as a part of that year’s Student Directed Showcase (SDS). From there, she discovered not only a passion for acting but also a love for the diversity and the vibrance of the community itself.

“I especially appreciate people and ideas that are different from mine, and I think when they express themselves through art and through acting that really, really comes out,” she said. “It gives me inspiration for myself as well.”

The love she feels for and from the community has kept her coming back ever since—or, as Hannah puts it, it’s “two-thirds for the people, one third the acting.” She has gone on to audition for and perform in every fall play and SDS, but even with her extensive experience with acting, she still admits to stage fright—largely as a result of her desire to perform well and her instinct to overthink everything.

“That perfectionist in me is the one that scares me to death when I go out on stage,” she said. “The easiest way for me to overcome my fears is just to cancel out all thinking—well, all negative thinking… It helps me understand that I can trust myself and that I wouldn’t let myself down. It helps with that confidence.”

Part of that fear is because Hannah always does something new and different onstage, whether it be making unexpected character choices during the second performance of “Our Town” or trying out dance show her senior year—or even playing the harp.

Coming from a musical family, Hannah was asked to choose an instrument to play in second grade. Though her parents were leaning towards the piano and even bought one for Hannah to play, she knew that she wanted something much more unique.

“Something in me said I didn’t want to do what everyone else was doing,” she said. “And that same thing in me said, ‘Why not harp?’ And I said okay. Who knows why that thing in me suggested harp—I don’t.”

I put effort into everything, and therefore I will put as much effort as I can into understanding this new concept to me, whether it’s a person, like their personality trait or characteristic, or a new subject or a new activity.”

— Hannah Lak (12)

Hannah had never even heard a harpist play before the moment of her fateful decision, and she remained ignorant of harp-related matters even after her decision, until one particular car ride, when her mother surprised her with the announcement that they were headed to Hannah’s very first harp lesson.

“I started crying because I was scared because new things scare me,” she said, laughing as she remembers her first experience with the harp.

In spite of her protestations, Hannah was forced to attend the class, and after she tried plucking a few strings, she became fond of the instrument—mainly because it was different from all the others. Hannah proceeded to join the upper school orchestra and various harp ensembles, all while continuing to improve and perfect her musical skills.

“It’s really nice to be engulfed in a song and just hear it come out, as simple as that sounds. Just to hear that familiar tune and know you played it right. Guess that the perfectionist in me just really likes it being right,” she said.

It’s not just new things either: Anything that isn’t immediately in her comfort zone challenges the perfectionist in Hannah to reach for greater heights.

“Anything that’s different for me, like dancing or really really hard multivariable calculus—things that are so very different from me and how I’ve learned and how I’ve thought before just drive me even more,” Hannah said. “I put effort into everything, and therefore I will put as much effort as I can into understanding this new concept to me, whether it’s a person, like their personality trait or characteristic, or a new subject or a new activity.”

Hannah also hopes to share the inspiration that she draws from something different with those around her, and harp, which is a fairly uncommon instrument, has given her an outlet to do just that.

“I really, really like seeing people’s reactions when they see or hear me play harp for the first time,” she said. “It doesn’t even have to be the first time—I really like it when they’re experiencing something different, or when they get really, really curious.”

Hannah’s search to experience and master the unfamiliar extends to her interactions with people as well. As a self-identified “people-watcher,” Hannah seeks to understand others, especially those whose lives are most different from hers—an interest that has led her to pursue studies in psychology, both in high school and beyond.

“The similarities I already understand. It’s the difference in people that I want to understand as well,” she said.

Hannah’s mission to understand and appreciate the humanity of those around her has inspired her friends to take the same course of action.

“I get to learn how she thinks about the world and what she appreciates, and I feel like that really helps me understand other people’s perspective later on,” Hannah’s friend since freshman year Nemo Yang (12) said.

In college, Hannah plans to continue studying and bridging the complex differences between herself and those around her, namely by pursuing further studies in psychology and cognitive sciences, which she currently plans to major in.

Wherever she goes, whatever she does, Hannah will unfailingly bring her optimistic, open-hearted light to others, not only allowing herself to reach out with positivity and make connections but also inspiring those around her to do the same—including Hannah’s former English teacher Dr. Pauline Paskali, who, after having known Hannah for four years, especially recognizes the light in Hannah’s nature.

“She’s just a reminder that it’s really important for others and for yourself to keep that positive, happy, open spirit in every interaction, to foster that in yourself and in others,” Dr. Paskali said.