An English teacher by the name of David McCullough Jr. stood up and told a high school graduating class that they’re not special. It was a commencement speech. And he told them nine times, “you’re not special.”
Naturally, like most things these days, it was recorded and then uploaded to the internet. Yes, you guessed it — it’s gone completely viral. Everyone from traditional media to new media is weighing in.
One the one hand, you have the critics who say that this kind of message is just not right for the occasion. I can see that, and so can Danny Rubin who writes on Business Insider:
Think back to your own high school or college graduation ceremonies. How would you feel if the keynote speaker took all the air out of the room by saying, quite plainly, there’s nothing remarkable about you.
Julie Green of Canada’s Yummy Mummy Club says:
Great commencement speeches are meant to linger on in the minds of the young and wet-behind-the-ears. Think Steve Jobs to the bright young things at Stanford (“Stay hungry, stay foolish”) or even wisecracking Conan O’Brien to still more bright young things at Harvard (“Fall down, make a mess, break something occasionally”)?
I agree with Green that both the Jobs and O’Brien speeches were fabulous — they were inspiring and thought-provoking. And most likely written by their staff too.
Sure, McCullough is no Steve Jobs. His jokes didn’t always land as well as Conan O’Brien’s. But I think he did a excellent job. He knows these kids. And more than anything, he knows what it takes to graduate from high school these days. Which is, not much.
If you think I’m being harsh, just consider the stats. In my province of Ontario, Canada, the graduation rate in 2009-2010 was 81%. In 2003-2004, the rate was 68%. Did struggling students all of a sudden manage to achieve the grades they needed to succeed? (No. No, they didn’t.)
This transformation is taking place in the United States as well, where this commencement speech was delivered. The Grad Nation campaign was launched in 2010 by the America’s Promise Alliance and aims to have a national graduation rate of 90% by 2020.
So if 90% of all young people are graduating from high school, is it really such a special achievement after all?
I’d liken it to learning to ride a bike. Regardless of who your child is, if you are their parent, you are so darn proud of this milestone. Seeing your little guy or gal with their hair in the wind, whizzing by you with no training wheels? Yes, that is special. But really, it’s only special to me — the parent. Because most kids — no, not all kids, and some kids have far more difficulties and challenges to face — do end up being able to ride a bike.
When my children first hit this milestone, sure, I said the same words that Green suggests are appropriate for the parent of the high school graduate: Woo hoo! Way to go, kid! You did it! What a stellar achievement! You rock! And then I encouraged them to keep practicing. Why? Because I knew they had a long way to go before they were going to be proficient riders — the work wasn’t done here. And to get true enjoyment from a bike, you’ve got to put the time in. Otherwise, you spend more time cleaning your skinned knees than riding to the park.
I think this also applies to high school graduation. Sure, it’s a milestone. But like McCullough says, “Today is just the beginning; where you go tomorrow is what matters.”
It’s important note that he wrote this for a particular group of kids — not the internets! — and this group of kids is graduating from what I understand is a high-income, highly educated neighbourhood … kids who’ve had privileges, who’ve had it far easier than many other kids. But don’t get me wrong, I don’t think these kids should feel bad about this or be given a heavy dose of guilt as a graduation present. And I don’t think McCullough does this. Rather, he says, now that you’ve graduated, go on out into the world and “be worthy of your advantages.“
And you know what? That’s precisely what I’d like for my children.
I’d love to hear what you think. If you’d like to weigh in, I’ve included the full commencement speech below as well as some other commentaries published on it.
“Your child is not special,” by Liz Gumbinner of Mom 101
“‘You’re not special,’ high school teacher tells graduating students,” by Andrea Lee Greenberg of the CBC News
“Teacher defends ‘you’re not special’ speech delivered at high school graduation,” on New York Daily News