You Are Not Special Graduation Speech
David McCullough Jr., an English teacher at Wellesley High School, gave this funny and provocative high school graduation speech. It’s one town over from where I live. In fact, I live on the side that borders Wellesley. Except for Wellesley being more homogeneous, our kids are growing up in a very similar way.
My soccer mom friend who runs soccer camps describes the differences between Newton and Wellesley moms:
Wellesley moms call ahead to ask about early drop off and late pick up. If it exists, they pay for it. They may not work outside the home, but they still want early drop off and late pick up.
Newton moms just show up late.
So, when Mr. McMullough says our kids are not special, it includes all of our kids who grow up bubble wrapped, cosseted and made to feel special. Ah, but isn’t this the flip side of helping your child feel self-confident? Can’t we not win for losing? Is nurturing our kids to be successful — carting them around to endless lessons, practices, performances and games — now just the norm? To be scorned even at our own kids’ graduations?
And is the root cause the fact that it’s SO MUCH HARDER to get into college these days then when we were in high school? It’s not like the number of colleges increased to match the number of kids applying.
So what is the answer? You can’t win for losing is my call.
p.s. Here’s another article he wrote after his speech went viral. Like this speech, it’s funny and makes you realize that he struggles with this idea of You’re Not Special as a dad himself. He rocks. I want to read more of his thoughts. I hope he writes a book!
Here are some interesting quotes from his speech:
The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.
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….
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…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…
You see, if everyone is special, then no one is.
If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless….
It’s an epidemic — and in its way, not even dear old Wellesley High is immune… one of the best of the 37,000 nationwide, Wellesley High School… where good is no longer good enough, where a B is the new C, and the midlevel curriculum is called Advanced College Placement. And I hope you caught me when I said “one of the best.” I said “one of the best” so we can feel better about ourselves, so we can bask in a little easy distinction, however vague and unverifiable, and count ourselves among the elite, whoever they might be, and enjoy a perceived leg up on the perceived competition. But the phrase defies logic. By definition there can be only one best. You’re it or you’re not.
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. Don’t bother with work you don’t believe in any more than you would a spouse you’re not crazy about, lest you too find yourself on the wrong side of a Baltimore Orioles comparison. 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.
What do you think? He’s right, isn’t he? Isn’t that why this went viral?
p.s. Thank you to Rachel Watkins from Twitter (@
@rbw_in_ath, goat-cheese-loving voracious-reading lifelong learner) for this link from the New York Times also trying to mull over this speech: Redefining Success and and Celebrating the Ordinary.
Key point: How do we teach our children — and remind ourselves — that life doesn’t have to be all about public recognition and prizes, but can be more about our relationships and special moments?
which is also McCullough’s point:
“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.”