It took a sincere English teacher to tell the seniors at his high school what no political or celebrity commencement speaker ever would: “You’re not special.”
David McCullough Jr., whose only claim to fame before this month was being the son of renowned historian David McCullough Sr., delivered that message repeatedly and profoundly at Wellesley High School’s graduation ceremony June 1, and he is earning kudos for his honesty toward “pampered” students.
Here are excerpts of McCullough’s speech:
Your ceremonial costume — shapeless, uniform, one size fits all. Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same. And your diploma, but for your name, exactly the same. All of this is as it should be because none of you is special.
You are not special. You are not exceptional. Contrary to what your U9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh-grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you, you’re nothing special.
Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. Yes, you have. And certainly, we’ve been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your science fairs. Absolutely, smiles ignite when you walk into a room, and hundreds gasp with delight at your every tweet. … And now you’ve conquered high school, and, indisputably, here we all have gathered for you, the pride and joy of this fine community.
But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not. … Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That’s 37,000 valedictorians, 37,000 class presidents, 92,000 harmonizing altos, 340,000 swaggering jocks, 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs. … Even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you. …
If everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. In our unspoken but not-so-subtle Darwinian competition with one another … we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.
No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it. Now it’s “So what does this get me?” As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans. It’s an epidemic. …
The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer. You’ll note the founding fathers took pains to secure your inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness — quite an active verb, “pursuit” — which leaves, I should think, little time for lying around watching parrots roller skate on YouTube.
In interviews since his speech, McCullough did emphasize that he emphasized the negative so he could end with this positive message to the students: “the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone is. Congratulations. Good luck. Make for yourselves, please, for your sake and for ours, extraordinary lives.”
And now, thanks to the Internet, hundreds of thousands of graduates, parents, teachers and school administrators have heard McCullough’s powerful words. Let’s hope they heed them.