More To Wellesley Commencement Speech Than 'You Are Not Special'

David McCullough Jr. isn’t sure why the commencement speech in which he told the Wellesley High School class of 2012, “You’re not special” went viral. In an interview with CBS “This Morning,” the bright, likable English teacher said he’s been “floored” by all the attention he’s gotten since delivering the speech. And he’s upset that that main message of his speech — that the real goal of life should be to transcend selfish desires — has been lost in the tsunami of press after he told some of the most privileged students in the nation:

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.

Them there’s fighting words. And, even though the speech wound its way back to the idea of selflessness and the inner, not outer, reward of achievement, most of us couldn’t get that little hand grenade out of our heads. The thing went viral because it tapped into the growing backlash against our overparenting culture, which, as McCullough rightly pointed out, has created a generation of upper middle class and middle class kids who have been “pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped … feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie.”

Many of us are growing increasingly uneasy with the way we parent. Laser-focused on our kids’ success and neverending feelings of happiness and security, we heap praise on them for doing no more than what’s expected even as we chide ourselves for doing so. It’s as if we can’t stop ourselves. Recently my two oldest children “graduated” from third grade and kindergarten. Though no one celebrated these moments as recently as 20 years ago, we now have ceremonies marking these modern-day rites of passage. They are sweet moments, and I’m thankful that the school makes an effort to mark ends and beginnings so well. But I’m also always a little stunned by the phalanx of paparazzi-like parents, all decked out, with their cameras and video recorders held high, whooping and “Bravo”-ing as their six- and seven-year-olds stand before us in the gym.

Often, during such ceremonies, I find myself turning away from the kids for a moment just to take in the scene of the parents. I scan the audience and try to imagine what it must feel like for the kids to see us all — this throng of beaming, clapping, overly eager parents. How do such frequent displays of praise and adoration affect all those young psyches? Will they grow up to expect such adulation year after year, month after month? Once out of college, come early June every year, will they look around for the cameras, the cheers, the fancy gifts? If so, as I think McCullough was trying to say, they will be sorely disappointed.

I remember something my own father said when I graduated from college. I was angling for a whopper of a gift (I believe a car had come to mind). His reaction, which I’ll never forget, was: “You just got a college degree. I’m the one who should be getting a gift!” At the time, I stalked off to my room and blared The Clash for three hours, but, looking back, I should have been more thankful. He was reminding me that the true reward of my accomplishment was embedded in the accomplishment itself, not some over-the-top gift tacked on at the end of it. I think David McCullough was saying the same thing, and his students should be thankful that one of life’s hardest lessons came from someone who so obviously cares about them enough to tell them the truth.