(Written in 2012 for the Boston Globe after our website crashed upon being the first to publish a transcript of David McCullough Jr.’s viral “You’re Not Special” Wellesley High School graduation speech. The Globe’s edition seems to have disappeared but I dug up my original draft in 2022.)
At the risk of thinking myself you-know-what, here’s what I’ve been wondering since Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough, Jr., delivered his “You’re not special” speech on June 1: Would the address have gone viral on the Web if I hadn’t posted it on my humble community website?
The public school teacher with the famous name (yes, his dad is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author/historian) delivered his speech before a typical commencement crowd, a few hundred graduating seniors and their families. Eyewitness press coverage was limited, with initial stories making little note of McCullough’s speech and no mention of the term “special,” which appears six times among the transcript’s 1,800 or so words. I didn’t attend Wellesley High’s commencement even though I purport to share with followers of The Swellesley Report, my 6-year-old blog/website, “More than you really want to know about Wellesley, Mass.” I already had 8th and 5th grade graduation ceremonies on my agenda, and wasn’t masochistic enough to hit a high school graduation too without having any kids in the Class of 2012.
But as a part-time community journalist, I was interested in how the ceremony went, recognizing that this class persevered through construction of the town’s shiny new high school right next door to the historic old one where they took most of their classes for the past 4 years. The day after commencement, a friend mentioned to me that McCullough gave a good speech. I didn’t think much more about it until two days later when a reader emailed me, offering a scanned version of her daughter’s copy of the talk, simply labeled “June 1st Special.” I passed on that offer, not wanting to transcribe it, but was intrigued enough to email McCullough to ask for a copy. He replied within an hour on June 5, and I slapped it onto our website, plucking the phrase “You’re not special” to include in the headline.
That’s when the fun started.
The first pick-up of our post came within a few hours by Boston- blog Universal Hub , run by my old friend Adam Gaffin. , a guy who taught me much of what I know about blogging. Though Adam didn’t actually use the word “special” in his headline, going instead with “Wellesley High teacher to graduating seniors: Get over yourselves,” I remember thinking when I saw that: Good headline!
Over the next couple of days, our post of the speech got picked up by a mix of new and traditional news outfits including the Huffington Post, the Boston Globe, The Daily Beast, The Washington Post and The Drudge Report, and began circulating wildly on Facebook. Publications in the UK, Germany and Australia linked back to us. Emails started flowing in from friends, who were surprised to find themselves being directed to The Swellesley Report from news sites such as the New York Daily News. I also got peppered with requests from big name publications such as The Dallas Morning News and Christian Science Monitor looking for permission to republish the speech – not that it was mine to grant. I was heartened by how many publications gave us proper credit for posting the transcript.
Seeing the story picked up by local news organizations such as the Globe, Herald and MyFoxBoston wasn’t too surprising, since anytime anything the least bit controversial seeps out of our oft-described “liberal” and “swanky” town (illicit massage parlors, school kids praying at a mosque, a reported sexual assault) a procession of news vans and copters rush in. We regularly get our website posts picked up by local news outlets. But the national and
international response has been surprising given that the furthest away we typically get readers from is Wellesley Township in Ontario. The fact that many Wellesley residents are well-to-do seemed to have little bearing on the national and international coverage, as these news outlets were simply attracted to McCullough’s message.
As the story gained momentum it was hard keep my eyes off the Google program I use to track website traffic trends. Repeat visitors typically dominate our traffic, but new visitors have inundated the site since the speech went up. Overall, I’ve had more traffic on the site since June 5 than in the entire previous five months, leaving me wishing that my advertisers paid per click rather than a flat rate.
By the weekend of June 9-11 the Web server supporting our site was virtually screaming for mercy, forcing my tech support to turn off the commenting system, which was being overloaded by a mix of “Amen, brother” messages and smackdowns of anyone who questioned McCullough’s message. The speech was the main topic of conversation at end-of-spring parties, with one salesman neighbor telling me he was using McCullough’s words to motivate his own team. Meanwhile, the local access cable channel posted its video of the commencement address on YouTube, which sparked a whole new wave of awareness via 1.4 million views.
The most unbelievable thing to me from all of this came from a comment McCullough made during a CBS This Morning interview, as he acknowledged difficulty in understanding why his speech grabbed worldwide attention. “I thought I was speaking to just the 400 whatever it was graduates… I live a very cloistered life. Very recently somebody had to explain to me what a blog was.”
Well, now he knows.