David McCullough Jr: “You Are Not Special.”

davidmcculloughI am sure that many have heard of the  commencement speaker at Wellesley High School, David McCullough Jr.,  an English teacher who got selected by the schools students to speak.

In the commencement speech, McCullough told the graduating class that they were “not special” and “none of you is special” nine times during his speech.

If you have not seen it, I highly recommend that you watch it and/or read the transcript. It is simply an unconventional commencement speech. He simply stated that every graduating senior at Wellesley and across the nation was not special.

McCullough, the son of a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian, stated that “[t]hink 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.”

That is certainly a cold shot of a statement in a way that might even make people consider him a jerk. Well, at least, that would have been my first thought    if this were part of my high school graduation speakers commencement speech.

But, lets take a deep breath and consider one question. What exactly was McCullough’s point? When you consider this, it seems he is trying to convey the point that accolades have come to mean more than “genuine achievement.” As a result, McCullough articulated,”[w]e cheapen worthy endeavors and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of the Guatemalans.”

McCullough concluded the commencement speech by emphasizing “selflessness,” which can only be achieved by realizing the overarching theme that “No One Is Special.”

McCullough managed to put down Donald Trump, Barney, the Baltimore Orioles, Mr. Rogers and the universe of Twitter.

I am sure there are people out there who have found McCullough’s speech offensive or not appropriate in some way. But, personally, I do not find it to be either of these actually. I find it to be an honest assessment and good advice to all graduating students. Although as I think about it, this speech   gives good advice for everyone to take to heart.

McCullough’s blunt advice in his commencement speech to the graduating seniors at Wellesley High School has received positive support from those in attendance at the receiving end of the reality check and everyone who has seen or read the speech since it was delivered.

A commentator on The Swellesley Report stated, “[f]or once someone told us what we need to hear and not necessarily what we wanted to hear.”

The following is the transcript of the commencement speech David McCullough Jr. gave to those in attendance at Wellesley High School.

Dr. Wong, Dr. Keough, Mrs. Novogroski, Ms. Curran, members of the board of education, family and friends of the graduates … ladies and gentlemen of the Wellesley High School class of 2012 … for the privilege of speaking to you this afternoon, I am honored and grateful. Thank you.

So here we are… commencement… life’s great forward-looking ceremony. (And don’t say, “What about weddings?” Weddings are one-sided and insufficiently effective. Weddings are bride-centric pageantry. Other than conceding to a list of unreasonable demands, the groom just stands there. No stately, hey-everybody-look-at-me procession. No being given away. No identity-changingpronouncement. And can you imagine a television show dedicated to watching guys try on tuxedos? Their fathers sitting there misty-eyed with joy and disbelief, their brothers lurking in the corner muttering with envy. Left to men, weddings would be… after limits-testing procrastination… spontaneous, almost inadvertent… during halftime… on the way to the refrigerator. And then there’s the frequency of failure: statistics tell us half of you will get divorced. A winning percentage like that’ll get you last place in the American League East. The Baltimore Orioles do better than weddings.)

But this ceremony… commencement… a commencement works every time. From this day forward… truly… in sickness and in health, through financial fiascos, through midlife crises and passably attractive sales reps at trade shows in Cincinnati, through diminishing tolerance for annoyingness, through every difference, irreconcilable and otherwise, you will stay forever graduated from high school… you and your diploma as one, ‘til death do you part.

No, commencement is life’s great ceremonial beginning, with its own attendant and highly appropriate symbolism. Fitting, for example, for this auspicious rite of passage, is where we find ourselves this afternoon, the venue. Normally, I avoid clichés like the plague, wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole, but here we are on a literal level playing field. That matters. That says something. And 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. 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.

The empirical evidence is everywhere, numbers even an English teacher can’t ignore. Newton, Natick, Nee… I am allowed to say Needham, yes? …that has to be two thousand high school graduates right there, give or take, and that’s just the neighborhood Ns. 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. Imagine standing somewhere over there on Washington Street on Marathon Monday and watching sixty-eight hundred yous go running by. And consider for a moment the bigger picture… Your planet, I’ll remind you, is not the center of its solar system, your solar system is not the center of its galaxy, your galaxy is not the center of the universe. In fact, astrophysicists assure us the universe has no center; therefore, you cannot be it. Neither can Donald Trump… which someone should tell him… although the hair is quite a phenomenon.


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