Teacher tells graduates: “You are not special.”

McCullough tells students: "You are not special."

There are some messages that need to be said, and some that people don’t want to hear. Often, a single message is both. When Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough stepped up to the mic to deliver the commencement address to the Class of 2012, he delivered one of those messages. He told them:

“You are not special. You are not exceptional.”

With his reading glasses and his slightly unkempt hair, he looked every bit the part of English teacher and strikingly resonated the message he was about to deliver. He told the students, “…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.”

Now, before you begin leaping to conclusions and shouting things like “how dare he tell my little pumpkin that she is anything less than amazing!” allow me to add some additional context. McCullough continued:

“The empirical evidence is everywhere, numbers even an English teacher can’t ignore. Newton, Natick, Needham, that has to be two thousand high school graduates right there, give or take, and that’s just the neighborhood numbers. 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. But why limit ourselves to high school? After all, you’re leaving it. So think about this: 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.”

He wasn’t beating them up to be mean or belittling. The truth is he was a teacher, through and through and to the end. Though they sat before him at commencement, the end of one era and the beginning of the next, he was taking one final moment to teach:

“As you commence, then, and before you scatter to the winds, I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance.”

“Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction. Be worthy of your advantages. Read as a nourishing staple of life. Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it. Dream big. Work hard. Think for yourself. Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might.”

“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 rollerskate on Youtube. The first President Roosevelt, the old rough rider, advocated the strenuous life. Mr. Thoreau wanted to drive life into a corner, to live deep and suck out all the marrow. The poet Mary Oliver tells us to row, row into the swirl and roil. Don’t wait for inspiration or passion to find you. Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands.”

Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct. It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things. Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly. Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover 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.

Personally, I can think of no better message to deliver to our kids, at commencement and minute-by-minute as they work through school to reach that milestone. You see, part of the problem– maybe the biggest part– is us. Parents of our generation are creating such coddling environments that our kids have very little self-sufficiency. McCullough says that, “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.” He’s right. And when he points this out to the graduating class he places the blame exactly where it belongs: with us.

“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. Why, maybe you’ve even had your picture in the Townsman! And now you’ve conquered high school… and, indisputably, here we all have gathered for you, the pride and joy of this fine community, the first to emerge from that magnificent new building…

But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.”

I admire him for his insight. I applaud him for his courage. I will honor him by doing all I can to remember these words with each interaction with kids, both mine and others, to encourage them to live their lives not to garnish the accolades, but the for sake of actually living their lives. I will encourage them, at all times, to “climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.”

I’ve presented you with the Cliff Notes version. For the full effect, watch David McCullough deliver the address himself:

About Jim Cota

Jim lives in Indianapolis with his wife and four kids and feels lucky to work with the fine folks at Rare Bird. An occasional writer, tweeter, and shooter. If you need to know anything else about me, this should do it...
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One Response to Teacher tells graduates: “You are not special.”

  1. Jerry Burton says:

    Great post Jim! David’s speech and your comments are both right on the mark. Well said.

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