I had another topic all set for today. Then I saw the headline on CNN: “Teacher Tells Grads: You’re Not Special”.
By now, many of you may have seen the YouTube video of David McCullough, Jr. at the commencement ceremonies of Wellesley High School. If you haven’t, I highly encourage you to watch it. It’s an interesting commentary. When I initially listened to the message, I was stunned. If you have the reaction I did, it may be helpful to take the time to read the text.
I was taken aback when he told the graduates that they were nothing special. To be fair, it was more than a simple statement, so here it is in context:
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.
As confidently as Mr. McCullough told the graduating class that they were nothing special, I have equal confidence that the statement was delivered for shock value. A reality check. With a fair amount of snark and “gotcha” thrown in for good measure.
I’m sure Mr. McCullough felt fantastic when he finished his draft. Who among us doesn’t like driving home their point? Being witty? And it’s worth noting how many people were either laughing during the speech or have applauded his ideas in user comments posted across the web. But I hope I’m not one of them.
I hope I don’t find myself telling someone on one of the most memorable days of their life how absolutely average they are now and that statistics show they’ll be one day. I’ll try to avoid letting my ego dominate my need to declare to someone what their life experience will be.
I’ve been so grateful I saw Monday’s headline; there’s a lot to be learned. As I’ve thought about it, I’ve been reminded in Technicolor about the power of words, tone, and delivery. It was interesting to see him walk back the sentiment by sundown. While lamenting the fact that the focus wasn’t on the students, he simultaneously gave repeated interviews. In the latest, he claimed he wasn’t trying to belittle the class, but instead inspire them to live distinctive lives.
Maybe part of the audience needed to hear Mr. McCullough’s message, but perhaps a student or two was really disheartened by those 12 minutes. For you, I have a message: twenty years from now, you will have too many successes to remember this commencement address. You’ll be amazed at the richness of your life: professional achievements, your loving friends and family, and traveling the world. You may be most proud of overcoming the incredibly painful things you can’t imagine right now: the time you were laid off from your dream job, the crippling student loan debt you finally paid off, and facing a life-threatening illness. The resiliency you develop and consistently show will be your true accomplishment.
You have my heartfelt congratulations, graduates. I’ll leave you with the words of the first African-American woman astronaut, Mae Jamison: “Don’t let anyone rob you of your imagination, your creativity, or your curiosity. It’s your place in the world, it’s your life. Go and do all you can with it, and make it the life you want to live.”