It was Friday afternoon when I saw the headline and giggled a little to myself (no need to let everyone else in on what I was doing). It struck me as funny that a commencement speaker told a group of graduating high school seniors that they weren’t special, that someone had gifted the graduates with a surprise package of honesty such as they likely don’t receive at home.
Today, I looked at the video of that speech and was surprised—pleasantly—when I found that the people who wrote headlines about the “buzzkill” commencement speaker had missed the whole point.
This is not some blowhard scrounged up to give a graduation day speech: he is Wellesley High School’s own veteran English teacher David McCullough, Jr., son of the historian, apparently a well-respected member of this upper class community in Wellesley, MA. (He’s given the faculty message at graduation before, said some of the same things six years ago!) If you watch the people in the background and listen to the other sounds, you see and hear a lot of laughter and head-nodding agreement with where he’s going in this speech—telling the students that “if everyone is special, then no one is” to shake them out of their certificate of participation-filled, everybody-gets-a-trophy world.
…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…
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?”
McCullough’s lively and humorous talk isn’t mean-spirited at all. He is serious in telling his students that they’ve been coddled by their parents (and the school and American society, to an extent) but those days are over, but his message comes out of love for the kids, and what I think is the right-headed realization that we’ve got to wake them up and stop spoiling them if we wish them to be successful and contributing members of society.
I also hope you’ve learned enough to recognize know 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.
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.
And without preaching, he spreads the word: do great things but don’t do them for yourself—do them for their own sake, or for the sake of others.
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.
- “Kid, you are not special” LZ Granderson, CNN.com
- “The Subversive Graduation Speech” Katie Roiphe, Slate