Commencement speeches come in a variety of colors, from light, cheery celebrations to darker, more serious takes on this big life change. English teacher David McCullough Jr. of Wellesley High School in Boston embraced a different style: brutal honesty.
Instead of leading what often is just a glorified pep rally, Mr. McCullough’s graduation speech — which was printed in full in the Boston Herald — was not just honest, but it took a jarring look at our over-indulged kids, helicopter parenting and a far more global approach to individuality and what he sees as a misconception of the state being “special.” What was so jarring (and awesome) about what he said?
After addressing how all the graduates are symbolically dressed all in their “ceremonial costume… shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all,” he added, “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.”
And this is when he went in for the punch, “All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special.”
He elaborated saying, “Contrary to what your 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.”
He then took on modern helicopter parents:
“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. 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…”
Reiterating again, “But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.”
He cited numbers to back up his point: “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.”
He continued saying, “You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless.”
Then he went into what is to be gained by this realization. “If you’ve learned anything in your years here I hope it’s that education should be for, rather than material advantage, the exhilaration of learning…I also hope you’ve learned enough to recognize how little you know… how little you know now… at the moment… for today is just the beginning. It’s where you go from here that matters.”
He then went into his advice segment, taking the “you are not special” mantra and gaining freedom from it:
“I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance. Don’t bother with work you don’t believe in any more than you would a spouse you’re not crazy about… Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction. Be worthy of your advantages. And read… read all the time… read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. 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. And do so, please, with a sense of urgency, for every tick of the clock subtracts from fewer and fewer.”
The op-ed/graduation speech ended with the statement, “the sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone is.”
What do you think of his take on the individual statement on our kids believing they are “special”? Agree or disagree?
You can read his entire speech right here from the Boston Herald.