Saturday, June 9, 2012

You are not special by David McCullough Jr. {The speech heard 'round the world}

Have you heard about the speech that David McCullough Jr. gave at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts this week?
I was dying to read it word for word.

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 clich├ęs 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 7th 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. 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.
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 6,800 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 mid-level 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.
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 roller skate 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.
Tuesday, June 7
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.)
7.9.10, What can be better than these smiles! They came from Italy when they were 19. We are so glad they are here now in the United States. What a wonderful couple. They bring love and happiness wherever they go. And they make some FIERCE tiramisu!
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.


Tracy P. said...

LOVE, LOVE, LOVE!!! You illustrated it so beautifully, Becky. So glad to get to read the whole thing. Thank you!

Anita said...

Oh,that's deep!
It ties in with some feelings I've had since yesterday morning as I sat in a 2 hour long award assembly for my daughter's 8th grade class.
Because we live in a so-called "good school district," at least 2/3 of the kids are on honor roll and get recognized for it, and another boat load of kids get award after award (including my daughter).
It made me think about the whole award thing - those who get them and those who don't, and what effect it has in the long run. Of course, I'm thinking - blog post fodder for me. :)
Thanks for posting this. I will read it again or listen to it, as he says a lot of thought provoking things.
Your photos are magnificent!

lifebythecreek said...

I watched the video, but I think it has even more impact in the written word. Fabulous, Becky; thank you. As an "old-school" mom, I applaud this speech and think it should be delivered to EVERY the DELIVERY room! When I graduated high school, we realized that we were one of many and that we would have to work HARD to achieve big things. I think the school sign said "Congratulations, Class of 1978!" And maybe the church signs as well. But that was it an all-inclusive "Way to go, group!" accolade. Over the past 15 years, I've watched as larger subdivisions vie to have the biggest "Congratulations!" sign, with EACH senior's name on it. And this year? Well, NOW a lot of the individual YARDS have signs in them for their specific child. No wonder young people have such a crummy attitude where they work; nobody is making a huge big deal over the fact that they figured out how to make the cash register take that rogue coupon, and they don't know how to function without the constant drip of praise. Bless this man; I hope that class, ALL of the seniors, and more importantly PARENTS everywhere really take this to heart. Oh, btw... Becky, YOU really ARE special, and one of kind! xoxox...

GunDiva said...

Thank you.

genderist said...

The grass shot is my favorite.

Lori Bowring Michaud said...

Mr. McCullough's speech was priceless. This is what I wrote about it in my facebook status when I posted the link: "Oh, how spot on! Thank you very much Mr. McCullough. I remember as a school board member quite a number of years ago hearing a young woman, who was the valedictorian, giving her speech on graduation day. It was about entitlement - everything the graduating student body was "entitled" to. It was quite a list. I was mortified. When I got home I sat my children down at the breakfast bar and told them what they were "entitled to" and for how long they were "entitled to it": a roof over their heads, food in their stomachs, clothes on their backs, and the support they needed to figure "things" out 'til they graduated from school - our complete love, for the rest of their lives." I should have added "support when needed".

I was blown away when I listened to our valedictorian give her speech. It was so egocentric.

Dina Lettre said...

Wow...couldn't agree more. (And, wish I'd heard that at 18.)

That shot of the fair ride is AMAZING, my friend!

Brian Miller said...

some really cool pics with this...esp the ride at the amusement this elsewhere this is strong and def a great message for this generation we are raising...

M said...

I watched it first at the beginning of your post, then read along with your photos...great job, as usual :)

I hadn't heard the speech but will pass it on :)

rainfield61 said...

Thank you for the sharing,

and of course, some beautiful pictures.

abrianna said...

Great speech and great photos.

Kathy said...


Andrea Dawn said...

What a great post . . . love all the photos you included. My favourite is the little girl with the dandelions.

Melanie said...

WOW! simply AMAZING shots of such beautiful people! You really do capture something SO special in your photos.

SUPER thrilled you are going to link up with Finagle a Foto!! Link will be up soon!

Danelle said...

I did hear about this, and I'm so glad you printed it! Just fabulous! More kids need to hear it--adults too I suppose. :)

Phoenix Peacock said...

I absolutely adore that speech!
Happy Scavenging

Christine said...

Love that, thanks for posting it! Great pics too!

Tamar SB said...

He is my new favorite person, he said what I have LONG believed!! I love a lot of the new teaching/responsive classroom stuff, but the new PE stuff where everyone is a winner or "we don't play competitive games so no ones loses" is BS you need to learn to lose and you need to learn to win! In 2nd grade when we played an in class game the winning team said "great game" to the losing team and the losing team said "great game, congrats" back. We learned to deal with being upset and deal with being gracious! No egos. Egos are our countries problem and I am so glad this speaker gave this filthy rich entitled high school gradating class (I live 20 mins down the road now) a reality check before leaving for the big bad world!

Okay, didn't mean to rant! HAHA!! Thanks for posting the transcript!

Amy Burzese said...

Well said. Something I've been trying to impart to my son and I don't think I've done a great job. I wish he would read this.

Adrienne said...

Thanks for sharing this!! Loved every word!

Jim said...

'Go to Paris to be in Paris'!
The 'bucket lists' are so desperate sounding.....everyone misses the Paris.
Becky, thanks for sharing this 'address' and your photos really showed just how special we ALL are, together.
I think the speaker/addresser had most of the parents' attention, at least I hope. The 'kids' have the rest of their lives to come to the realizations that he was sharing with them.
The graduates just want to 'get on with it'!

Karen said...

Thank you for sharing this. I read this yesterday, but your accompanying photos added so much impact....beautiful! This is a lesson we should all embrace....not just recent graduates!

Pat said...

What a great speech! The text is so wonderfully accompanied by your photos.

She Writes Here Now said...

I listened to it and read along here. I am crying like a child. This was phenomenal. THANK YOU! I am graduating with AA in June and transferring on to university in fall. As you know, I am older and in college making a new life for me and Jane. It is terrifying sometimes, but this speech was sooo beautiful, so inspiring. Though I chose not to walk for my graduation because "everyone gets their AA now," I feel I have heard my commencement speech. Thank you!

CameraCruise said...

Great post and photos!
Thanks for sharing.

panamamama said...

Love IT!

Deanna said...

whew...that was great!!

Andrea said...

I am glad I read this...what a great way to illustrate it as well. Love the "if everyone gets trophies, trophies become meaningless" actually dealing with this right now :)

Stefanie said...

The last shot is my favorite :)
Happy Sunday!

Kim Cunningham said...

Wow! What an amazing kick in the booty! Loved it. Spot on!

Deborah said...

You have some amazing photography going on!

Busy Bee Suz said...

I DID hear this! It is awesome...amazing and eye opening. LOVE love your are awesome, amazing and eye opening. :)

Nancy Claeys said...

I'm glad you posted this, Becky, as I hadn't heard about it (I need to get out more?)

It says what many think, but can't quite put into words as succinctly.

Amazing photos -- I'm honored that you shared with YSB this week. xoxo

Formerly known as Frau said...

Love it.....thanks for sharing it and love all your beautiful smiles that went with it! xo

Beth Ross | Tyler, TX Photographer said...

What a great speech and so, so true. I LOVE the picture of the children on the ride at the amusement park. The light is amazing. Thanks so much for sharing this post.

photowannabe said...

Thank You Becky for sharing this.
The speech is Spot on!
It seems entitlement is the biggest thing in our society today.
I can only hope and pray that the families that heard this speech will take it to heart and go on to live generous, giving and serving lives.
I do remember (way back in the "Dark Ages") when I was in Jr. High and went to church camp that one of the speakers gave us a sermon entitled "You ain't No special kind of cat".
I have never forgotten that and was a bit confused by it at the time but it actually has stuck with me all of these years.
This speech could have been called that too.

Tracey said...

So awesome! I need to reread this over again to soak it up!

Ashley Sisk said...

You always know how to make me smile - great message!

Icy BC said...

Thanks for posting this video. I didn't know about it..Lovely photos as well.

EG CameraGirl said...

Super post! Bravo!

Buckeroomama said...

Oh, Becky --thanks for posting this in its entirety!

"Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might."

KWQR said...

Just what I needed to read tonight! So love this. Thanks for posting it.
p.s. Totally in love with the carnival ride shot - fantastic!

Jennifer P said...

Thanks for posting. Will make sure my high school graduate self-imposed slacker reads this...

derstine family said...

She is a cancer survivor!