If everyone’s special, no one’s special
Another graduation season has come and gone leaving a new crop of fresh-faced kids to make their way in an increasingly challenging world. This year’s slews of convocation speeches, from high schools across Canada and beyond, have no doubt elicited laughter, tears and nostalgia. But none, I bet, have garnered quite the reaction as that from the so-called You’re not Special speech, given by Boston-area high school English teacher David McCullough Jr.
He told Wellesley High School’s Class of 2012 that they’re not unique simply because they’d completed high school. The class, seated on a football field, was literally on a level playing field, he said. Wearing one-size-fits-all, shapeless, uniform-like caps and gowns, each graduate was alike.
“Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray tanned prom queen or intergalactic XBox assassin, each of you, you'll notice is exactly the same.”
That’s as it should be, he noted.
“You’re not special. You’re not exceptional. Contrary to what your U9 soccer trophy suggests... You are 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... You’ve been feted and fawned over and called ‘Sweetie Pie,’... And now you’ve conquered high school... But do not get the idea you’re anything special.”
McCullough Jr. offered what he called imperial evidence of the grads’ sameness.
He said there were no fewer than 3.2 million students from 37,000 high schools across the U.S. graduating this year.
That means “37,000 valedictorians, 37,000 class presidents, 340,000 swaggering jocks, and more than 2 million pairs of Uggs... Even if you’re one in a million, on a planet with 6.8 billion people, that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you... Your planet, I’ll remind you, is not the centre of its solar system. Your solar system is not the centre of its galaxy. Your galaxy is not the centre of the universe. In fact, astrophysicists assure us, the universe has no centre: therefore, you cannot be it... You see, if everyone is special then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy then trophies become meaningless,” he said in part during the speech.
And while it has garnered a storm of mixed reaction, and caused McCullough Jr. to retreat somewhat from life, I for one get what he’s saying.
Anyone venturing to downtown Montreal and the ongoing student protests should get what he’s saying. He was giving a wakeup call to the entitled generation that seems to simply expect everything to fall into place because they’ve been lulled into a false sense of their own worth.
I’ve read, with interest, reader comments from the countless news outlets which have covered the speech. One mom summed the problem up, saying that while other peoples’ children were not special, hers certainly was.
Of course we all think our kids are special, but it’s also our job to prepare them for the often harsh realities of life.
The first is that life is not fair.
The second is that life takes hard work, and sometimes even that’s not enough. But combine that with determination and the willingness to persevere, and the kids who get it will do just fine.
But we’re not going to help our youths by excusing poor judgment. A story that ran this week in a local paper about Westwood Sr. High School’s graduation ceremony was somewhat defensive and challenging in tone. It was written by a probably well-intended parent and school board representative. Referring to a highly publicized fight at the school this year - one that was filmed by a crowd of about 50 students who stood by watching rather than helping, or going for help - the author wondered where all the journalists were that had descended upon the school to report on the vicious fight and the onlookers’ apathy. He went on to outline the many, many wonderful, noteworthy, meaningful and impressive achievements of the school’s brightest, most caring students. I agree. We have some terrific young people in our communities. Most high schools are filled with intelligent, compassionate, articulate youths.
That does not undo what happened during the fight, however, or the onlookers’ lack of action (and insensitivity in filming the brawl.) The school dealt well with the situation, asking those who stood by to attend a compassion workshop and do some community service. Only one set of parents kicked up a fuss, probably because their kid is too special to learn from his actions. And while I understand the writer’s desire to highlight the positive, by tying it with the fight some reading the tone may use it as an excuse to minimize the onlookers’ decisions, or cast themselves in a victim role. The fight was one of life’s teachable moments. Our kids are not too special to learn from poor judgment. We would be doing them a disservice to let them think otherwise.
The views expressed in the opinion article are not those of Hebdos du Suroît. To contact Kristina Edson directly, call 450 455-7955 extension 224, fax 450 455-3028, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.