Wellesley High grads told: “You’re not special”

new Wellesley High logoWe’d been hearing good things over the weekend about Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough, Jr.’s faculty speech to the Class of 2012 last Friday. Here it is, in its entirety, courtesy of Mr. McCullough:

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-changing pronouncement.  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. 

TECHIEST COMMENCEMENT SPEAKERS OF 2012

            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!  [Editor’s upgrade: Or The Swellesley Report!] 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 that hair is quite a phenomenon.

            “But, Dave,” you cry, “Walt Whitman tells me I’m my own version of perfection!  Epictetus tells me I have the spark of Zeus!”  And I don’t disagree.  So that makes 6.8 billion examples of perfection, 6.8 billion sparks of Zeus.  You see, if everyone is special, then no one is.  If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless.  In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another–which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — 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, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.  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?”  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.  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.

            If you’ve learned anything in your years here I hope it’s that education should be for, rather than material advantage, the exhilaration of learning.  You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness.  (Second is ice cream…  just an fyi)  I also hope you’ve learned enough to recognize 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.

            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.  Read as a nourishing staple of life.  Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it.  Dream big.  Work hard.  Think for yourself.  Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might.  And do so, please, with a sense of urgency, for every tick of the clock subtracts from fewer and fewer; and as surely as there are commencements there are cessations, and you’ll be in no condition to enjoy the ceremony attendant to that eventuality no matter how delightful the afternoon.

BEST & WORST CELEBRITY TECH MOMENTS OF 2012

            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.  You’ll note the founding fathers took pains to secure your inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness–quite an active verb, “pursuit”–which leaves, I should think, little time for lying around watching parrots rollerskate on Youtube.  The first President Roosevelt, the old rough rider, advocated the strenuous life.  Mr. Thoreau wanted to drive life into a corner, to live deep and suck out all the marrow.  The poet Mary Oliver tells us to row, row into the swirl and roil.  Locally, someone… I forget who… from time to time encourages young scholars to carpe the heck out of the diem.  The point is the same: get busy, have at it.  Don’t wait for inspiration or passion to find you.  Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands.  (Now, before you dash off and get your YOLO tattoo, let me point out the illogic of that trendy little expression–because you can and should live not merely once, but every day of your life.  Rather than You Only Live Once, it should be You Live Only Once… but because YLOO doesn’t have the same ring, we shrug and decide it doesn’t matter.)

            None of this day-seizing, though, this YLOOing, should be interpreted as license for self-indulgence.  Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct.  It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things.  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.  Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly.  Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them.  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.

            Congratulations.  Good luck.  Make for yourselves, please, for your sake and for ours, extraordinary lives.

                                                                                    David McCullough

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170 Comments

  1. Dr Kuni Beasley
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    Dave – You can speak at mine.

  2. B WHite
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    My nephew’s life ambition is to live in his parent’s basement for the rest of his life. Ideally, he would have a refrigerator, a microwave and have whatever food and drink he needs delivered to his lair, have his parents pay for them and NEVER leave. He’s 22 years-old and I believe he defines what a ‘useless eater’ is. But, who am I to judge? I think the single word that defines a whole generation is ‘whatever’.

  3. Robert
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

    That speech was more about a guy trying to show off his uber-cleverness with the English language than about motivating students to take charge of their future. His speech was like a bland tasting wedding cake buried in a pile of fancy frosting. About 80% of what he said was just verbal bling.

    His whole speech could have been:
    “You’ve had it easy up till now with your parents feeding, clothing, housing and caring for you. Soon this will all change and you’ll need to change to meet that challenge. College will be harder than this and real life harder than college. If you skip college, you will face the same or greater hardships but get paid less. The only way I know to avoid all this is to get a liberal arts degree, a teaching credential and become a tenured teacher like me. Then you can talk about life without having to actually live it.”

    • Thomas
      Posted June 8, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

      You didn’t do well in your public oration classes, did you?

    • richard
      Posted June 8, 2012 at 5:14 pm | Permalink

      I’m so sorry that you are such a bitter person. Maybe if you had heard this speech at your graduation you would be a happier person today.

  4. retired teacher
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    Congratulations 1000 plus times!!!!!!

    I can’t count the number of commencement speeches I have heard, and this is by far
    the absolute best. Wonderful, simply WONDERFUL!!!!
    Your students are very fortunate to have had a teacher like you.

    I pray those who disagree, will “get it” someday.

    Thank you.

  5. Gregh
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Permalink
  6. Justin
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    I’m sorry, tomh, I respectfully disagree. I believe that removing the wool from over the eyes of the young adults shows the utmost respect. He respects them enough to share what he believes to be the truth. And in much of what he says, I agree wholeheartedly. It’s hard to deny that today’s youth has a warped sense of accomplishment. And I say this as a younger adult, myself. Knowing that I, too, at times don’t have proper perspective. He delivered a wake-up call to an impressionable and knowledge-thirsty group of students, many of whom aren’t properly prepared to deal with lives “full of people trying to knock them down.” Because of how many of them have been raised, they are soft and ill-equipped to properly deal with such adversity. At the same time, he encourages them to dream big and reach for excellence — to not allow those standing in their way or trying to knock them down prevent them from achieving brilliance. It’s time for us to show enough love and respect to properly prepare the next generation for hardships — not to terrify them but to empower them with the knowledge that they can rise above if they know it’s out there and they have experience dealing with it. Life is not easy. To me, excessive coddling is doing a disservice to the very people we are trying to protect. I’m not saying we should guide without love and compassion. Positive reinforcement is a huge part of the solution. But young people must be aware of the potential pitfalls of life. Without warning, they won’t know how to recognize, sidestep or overpower them.

  7. howiem
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

    It was a different and a pretty good speech until he ruined it at the end:
    “Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. 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”

    Advocating that people be selfless means that people should always do things for everyone else, and nothing for one’s self. This is hardly realistic. unless one is very rich.
    You should do things in your self interests, because if you do not, then you have to depend on others to act in your self interests, and you will become a burden to them. He is wrong about not being special, it is just that we need to earn that accolade. What he failed to say is that we are each unique, but we need to work and parlay our uniqueness into our pursuit of happiness. We need to act in our own self interests because if we do and earn more than we need for ourselves, then we can help others. If we are selfless then we will be poor and dependent on others for charity. I would recommend that the speaker try reading Ayn Rand, F.A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, De Toqueville, Henry Hazlitt, Milton Friedman, Adam Smith, and others who understand freedom, how it is achieved and how it is retained.

    • Thomas
      Posted June 8, 2012 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      I hear what you’re saying, but I feel it’s a rather kindergarten view of what “selfless” means. Of course you have to take care of yourself to be a functional human being, but anyone who has ever involved themselves in even the simplest open-hearted generosity knows that really being selfles _is_ taking care of yourself.

  8. Carole Hendrix
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    Amazing. Just when you see our culture in a hole (and digging) your faith is renewed by someone thoughtful and articulate and right and in a position to have an impact

  9. Calvin
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    Great speech, but the Orioles are in first place this year…

    ….just saying.

  10. Judy Serritella
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Beautiful! Needs to be on the front page of every newspaper in America.

  11. teach 5
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant…such insight for today’s graduates! One of my favorite quotes:”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.”
    Well done, Mr. McCullough! Please continue teaching and inspiring us all!

  12. scottR
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

    @tomh will undoubtably have a couple of 30 year old kids living on his couch. Either that or he’ll be paying for their lodging elsewhere. And he also thinks everyone should get a ribbon for showing up. That is stupid thinking, and the #1 reason the U.S. is the 8th most powerful nation on the planet instead of #1, which most of them still believe. lol

  13. Craig Gilkison
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    An excellent speech. He negleglected one point though. Wellesley HS grads aren’t special, Weston HS grads are.
    Weston ’66.

  14. teach 5
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Brilliant…such wonderful insight to today’s graduates!
    My favorite line: “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.”
    Well done, Mr. McCullough. Keep inspiring us all!

  15. vahorse
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    Great speech!
    Is there anyway you can corral obama, the liberal media, arrogant/stupid hollywood and the majority of idoits in DC, oh and all the stuckup harvard professors ad give them this speech. Maybe they’d learn somthing……maybe not!

  16. Madbuilder
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    Absolutely outstanding! We need more of this sort of thinking and fewer “participation trophies”. The students in McCullough’s classes are very fortunate.

  17. tagee65
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Amen! I have worked with “maladjusted youth” for 21 years and my wife is a public school teacher. We are the parents of two small children and agree that the liberal run schools are the source of a lot of this attitude. Kids are told that their poop doesn’t stink and they believe it. Throw in their parents attitudes – not valuing education, etc. and they are doomed to fail. But don’t worry – the dems will give them welfare, food stamps and everything else to buy their votes and keep them on the dole. They are being bought with our money and kept poor. This is not the America our founding fathers had in mind! The Obamination must be stopped in November!!

  18. H.L.
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

    I am sorry, but my comment to this teacher would be: “Stick your “Your Not Special” speech in your ear!” I know this dude thinks he’s giving people a reality check, however, I also know a lot of Primary and Secondary Education teachers who only encourage students to succeed when they can potentially boost the teacher’s career…..This guy should have directed this speech at the other teachers and NOT the students…This guy should have been encouraging the students to go out and be awesome members of society and be proud of their accomplishments in school and college…and NOT telling them that they are in no way special……I am tired of hearing about teachers being proud of only a select group of students….the “Jocks” if you will….granted they should be proud of their achievements, but this does NOT mean the teacher stops focusing on ALL the students and not just the Jocks……Talk about descrimination…..

  19. Mari Owen
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    This is probably the first honest speech they have ever heard. As a graduation gift, their parents should copy it off and give it to them for a graduation present. Better yet, make lots of copies and paper their bedroom with it!

  20. dave
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    Mr. Mccullough’s last sentence is the only one that we should focus on – if we see everyone as special and unique we cannot help but love fully and place others before one self..

  21. DaveR
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    “(W)here good is no longer good enough, where a B is the new C,” I believe is a typo….it should read “….where C is the new B,….”

  22. Alice Maxwell
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    At last we see the mood in the country beginning to change! Hurrah!

    The constant crisis being reported is getting into the fixated American minds. Life is not a bowl of cherries and our children are not the future if they are not ready to work for it!

    Oh, Dave McCullough, you are a jewel and you are a great teacher. I hope your stu dents respond better thah their parents ever did! Come to think of it, you aimed at them too!

    Great!!!!!!!

  23. Duncan Rogers
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    As a graduate of WHS long ago, I applaud this speech. Well said.

  24. B. Hart
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    Love it! especially the inspiring ending!

    “Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. 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.”

  25. Ted C
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

    I wish to God someone had given me this speech when I graduated from High School. The accolades from family, the shallow awards, and the glowing speech we heard about the best days of our lives – and the endless opportunities and acheivements that would inevitably fall into our laps – led to a desperate, uncomfortable decade as I wondered what was wrong with me and why things didn’t just all go my way. I had to learn the truths in this excellent speech the hard way. It could have saved me the better part of a decade figuring these things out because no one had the guts to me.

  26. L. Allen
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    AMEN! This should be told to every high school student AND their parents.

  27. sarah
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    Just have to say that i LOVE this speech, and having just graduated myself I don’t see anything wrong with it as so many else do. It is coming from a genuine place and what is wrong with that??

  28. Posted June 8, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    BRAVO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  29. TAMARA
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    I graduated in 1976. this was a fantastic message, and in 20 years, they will understand it.

  30. DG
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

    While what he says is basically true, as a matter of decorum, he comes across as a smug, self-righteous, self-indulgent jerk. In a flash of irony, his desire to distinguish himself as a malcontent and seer during a high school commencement speech reeks of the narcissism and self-absorption he claims to be railing against. From a pragmatic point of view, those most in need of his advice are least likely to absorb it in this context, and the ones who will embrace his argument are those who already well understand it. He’s preaching when he should be congratulating.

    • DG
      Posted June 8, 2012 at 3:33 pm | Permalink

      Another quick point: the cliche he repeats throughout, “if you’re special, then nobody is,” mistakes what “special” means in the same unfortunate way narcissists mistake it: “special” does not mean “superior,” it means “different,” “individual,” “unique.” It does not mean “better,” or “best.” For those who don’t organize all human endeavor according to winning and losing, the word “special” is not much of a threat.

  31. Barbara Booey
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Dear TomH:

    These kids (and many of their doting parents) have been and will continue to celebrate these kids achievements every day of their lives. It is refreshing that on at least one of them, they will receive their come-uppance and a dose of what the world they are entering will be like. It’s clear you subscribe to the “everyone’s a winner” way of thinking, but it’s a shame you don’t realize that this simply does our nation’s kids a disservice and places our country further behind the 8 ball in the big scheme of things.

  32. Lynne
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    I’m knocking on the door to 60 years of age and that speech inspired me! It’s about time someone told young folks real and valid truth. Totally amazing speech, sir! Thank you.

  33. Dina
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    After fighting my urge to stand up and applaud this speech…I decided it might be best to print a copy for each of our children…including the recent high school grad! What an outstanding message for all ages to ponder.

  34. John Vrabel
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    Its my birthday today! 6.8 million divided by 365 is… Who cares anyway. I love you all

  35. marylou
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 2:56 pm | Permalink

    This man is extremely intelligent-he should write a book (or 2 or 3)

  36. David
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    This is a very good message to all those from every generation who think the world revolves around them and owes them something because they’re special.

  37. Hector
    Posted June 8, 2012 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

    All these comments…2 boo hoos. Not bad. I remember asking my oldest, when he would struggle with homework and wonder what all the fuss was about grades, “do I get paid more money if you get an A, or will you get into a better college, get a better career, and make more moeny if you get that A?”. He realized it wasn’t about the accolades, but about the future. Thank you, Mr. McCullough, for taking a sharp witty pin, and pricking the self importance of today’s high school graduates. If Facebook is any indicatior of a typical teen’s writing skills, I shudder with fear…