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Joe O’Connor Jun 11, 2012 – 8:13 PM ET | Last Updated: Jun 12, 2012 1:35 PM ET
David McCullough Jr., an English teacher at Wellesley High School, in Wellesley, Mass., told a crop graduating students that they were “not special” “You are not exceptional,” he said.
Wellesley High School, in Wellesley, Mass., is among the best in the United States, a stately institution with a student body that has bankers and lawyers and doctors as Moms and Dads and high expectations of studying in an Ivy League setting.
On a recent afternoon, the class of 2012 gathered for commencement, an annual rite of passage typically marked by impassioned speeches about how they, the new graduates, are the best and the brightest.
Privileged, exceptional, wonderfully unique and destined to go forth and make a difference.
But the difference, on this sun-dappled afternoon, was the message David McCullough Jr., an English teacher at the school, had for the crop of Wellesley kids in their crimson graduation caps and gowns.
“You are not special,” he told them.
“You are not exceptional,” he said.
“Contrary to what your U9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent 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.”
There was laughter, even applause from among the assembled students.
Perhaps because a middle-aged man wearing a blue shirt, blue jacket, blue tie — with reading glasses perched on the end of his nose — uttered The Great Unspoken truth on a day typically reserved for hollow platitudes: Our kids are not special. They are just kids. And not so different from the next kid, or the 3.2 million other kids who graduate from American high schools each year.
Coddling, cuddling, pampering, pumping them full of self-entitlement, giving them ribbons for simply showing up and barricading them behind material advantage only insulates them from the real world. The hard knocks world. The world they enter after high school.
Mr. McCullough’s speech, which, naturally, went viral on the Internet, landed him on Fox News, CBS and a bevy of other U.S. media outlets where he was either bashed or praised for telling it like it is.
It’s not an easy thing to do. The stakes can be high. Lynden Dorval, a physics teacher at Ross Sheppard High School in Edmonton, was suspended last month for giving students zero for missed work, an outrage that ran counter to the school’s “No Zero Policy.”
“These are high school students,” Mr. Dorval told me when we spoke. “They are becoming adults. They are getting ready to step out into the real world, and it is time for them to start taking responsibility for their own actions.”
Several retired Edmonton teachers have come forward in Mr. Dorval’s defence while also charging that the no zero policy artificially inflates marks in a province where education funding models are tied to grade point averages.
Wellesley High is not average. Not on paper. Its students are going places. It is where they go, and how they get there, that Mr. McCullough finds troubling. He lamented an American era where accolades outstrip genuine achievement; where “building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin [College] than the well-being of Guatemalans”; where it is no longer whether you “win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it, it’s “So what does this get me?”
Generation Me is not a new phenomenon. Parents, schools, sports associations, have all been stuffing the powder keg with dynamite for years. Look around next time you are standing in line at the ice cream parlour or dropping the kids off at daycare.
Little Suzie throws a tantrum and what happens? Mom and Dad cave. Tantrum-thrower winds up with two scoops of mint chip in a waffle cone. They win, and we let them — even when they don’t.
But to be a true winner, to wrest full value from life, one has to earn its rewards and understand that, as a now famous American high school teacher said, “you’re not special” because everyone is.
“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,” Mr. McCullough said.
“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 the mountain so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.”