David McCullough, a high school English teacher in Wellesley, Mass., and the son of the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, was the speaker for Wellesley High School’s graduation ceremony, during which he told the Class of 2012: “You are not special. You are not exceptional.”
David McCullough Jr. may just have committed the first known case of heresy in modern America.
McCullough, a high school English teacher in Wellesley, Mass., and the son of the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, was the speaker for Wellesley High School’s graduation ceremony, during which he told the Class of 2012:
“You are not special. You are not exceptional.”
According to a transcript published by The Swellesley Report, McCullough told the grads:
“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.”
Now, for 40 years, American kids have been raised on just that philosophy, that the waters parted the moment they cried into the world. Many parents live in mortal dread that their child might have a moment of uncertainty, disappointment and failure.
I once interviewed a local college chaplain who said that he spent a good portion of his time dealing with distressed students who were utterly unfamiliar with rejection, disappointment and heartbreak. But nothing can swathe us from the hard bumps and detours of life.
“You see, if everyone is special, then no one is,” McCullough said. “If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. ... We have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. ... 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. … 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.”
Even if we aren’t special, as McCullough suggests, each of us possesses the potential for greatness. We do kids a disservice when we let them assume that success will come solely as a result of who they are. Imagine their shock when no one else seems to notice or appreciate their being special, when they discover that real success demands effort, suffering and sacrifice — and even then, they may fail.
History shows us that ordinary humans are indeed capable of doing extraordinary things, but it requires much, much more than being “special,” no matter what we’ve been told.
Contact Charita Goshay at firstname.lastname@example.org.