Book Excerpt: “What I Learned from the Giraffes”

The following is an excerpt from my upcoming book, What I Learned from the Giraffes, due out this spring. Just to give you a taste of what I’ve been working on. 🙂


When I was in high school, I went out for the cheerleading squad. I was always very athletic as a kid, but growing up in Rochester, New York in the sixties, there weren’t really a lot of opportunities for girls to play school sports. Cheerleading was one of the few outlets girls had for being physically active, so it felt like a good thing for me to do.

There was stiff competition among the girls for the few slots on the team that were available. I wasn’t the prettiest girl in the class. I was thin and lanky, and I was already at my full adult height of five-foot seven, which was considered tall in those days. But being naturally athletic, I could do all the tricks and jumps very easily, so it was hard to turn me down.

I was so excited to come home and share the news with my family that I’d made the squad. But when I made the announcement at the dinner table that night, my father’s reaction stopped me cold.

In contrast to my mother’s outspokenness, my father was the other kind of person—the “strong, silent” type, stoic, a man of few words. Where my mother led with her personality, my father led by his quiet, disciplined example, having first served in the army, then following his father into the city fire department, where he eventually served as a battalion chief. He could speak volumes with the expression on his face, and by a single glance you could instantly tell if he was pleased with you or terribly disappointed.

I was accustomed to being the apple of my father’s eye. He supported almost everything I did, and most of the time I could do no wrong in his eyes. But when I shared my news about becoming a cheerleader, he looked like he’d seen a ghost. In fact, he broke his typical silence. “Terry, I don’t think that that’s appropriate behavior for you,” he said. “I don’t like the idea of you jumping around in front of a lot of people yelling and screaming. I don’t think it’s very ladylike.”

The noisy dinner conversation fell almost silent. I was shocked, crushed and deeply embarrassed.

Of course, looking back at it now, I understand why my father was upset. All he could envision in his mind was his little girl in short skirts and tight sweaters, jumping around, showing maybe more than what you should be showing to a stand full of people. But in that moment, it hadn’t even occurred to me that there would be an issue.

I pled my case, explaining how there weren’t any other sports for girls and what an achievement it was even to make the team. My mother, ever the progressive thinker, also spoke up in my defense, diplomatically pointing out how this might be a good thing for me. My father was unmoved, so rather than continue the disagreement in front of the family, Mom chose to pivot. “We’ll discuss it later,” she said, shooting a meaningful glance my way. We went on with our dinner.

I joined the cheerleading squad, and my father never brought it up again. He went to a couple of games, but that was about all the support he could muster. I could tell he remained uncomfortable with my being a cheerleader, even though he didn’t say no.

As it turned out, cheerleading couldn’t have been a better fit for me—and in fact it ended up informing almost every job I took as an adult. Cheerleading taught me how much I love working with people, interacting with them, encouraging them. It also gave me some leadership and management skills, the ability to guide people and projects. My career path eventually led me into the world of human resources—starting as a trainer, then ultimately working up to vice-president of HR for a respectable firm where I worked for years. I got to work with people on a personal, emotional level, and I got to be their advocate, their encourager.

Their cheerleader.

That was really the heart of it. Being a cheerleader revealed the heart of who I was and what I wanted to be for people—an encourager. I get such a kick out of helping people move closer to their goals. Even today, in my work as a career coach, it’s basically the same thing. I’m still a cheerleader—just in a whole different sort of way. It’s a perfect fit for me because I get to encourage, inspire and motivate people every day.

Many years later, after I had become vice-president of HR, I had a conversation with my father. “You know, Dad, after all this time, I can now say confidently that being a cheerleader was really the foundation of my professional success,” I told him.

“You’re absolutely right,” he said with a big smile.

© 2020 Terrylynn Smith. All rights reserved.

I’ll keep you updated on the book’s progress, including updates on the anticipated spring release. If you’d like to be added to my email list for further updates about the book release, shoot me an email at More to come!