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Commencement Speaker to High School Graduates: “You’re not special.”

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June 08, 2012 11:45 am


“You’re not special.”

That’s the headline-grabbing line from a commencement speech at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts given by David McCullough Jr. (son of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and author David McCullough).

But, aside from his diatribe against weddings in the opening paragraph, the address offers quite a bit of useful advice for high school graduates and, at the very least, should be somewhat memorable for the graduates–unlike the commencement address at my high school graduation, which was given by a local Divison III college football coach.

For example:

  • “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.”
  • “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…”

Of course, these bits of advice are wrapped in some pretty harsh critiques that are standard for the current generation of high school students and especially resonate with me, a bitter Gen Xer:

Contrary to what your 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. 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.

But, parents of today’s high school students and graduates, before you gasp in horror at the above paragraphs, take the time to read McCullough’s final words of advice to the Wellesley High School Class of 2012 and tell me that you don’t find them valuable and even, yes, sweet:

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.

You can read McCullough’s entire speech on Valerie Strauss’s The Answer Sheet blog at the Washington Post. After you do, come back here and share your thoughts in the comments section. Too harsh? Valuable words of wisdom? A little from column A and a little from column B? Also, let us know whether you remember anything from the commencement address at your high school graduation.


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Every Child a Graduate. Every Child Prepared for Life.