With graduation season upon us, we are reminded that we have heard some version of "Oh, The Places You'll Go" by Dr. Seuss every year for the past seven years in commencement speeches. There have also been years when we have heard quotes from the book multiple times, with our recollection of the record being four times in one spring when we heard:
"Congratulations! Today is your day. You're off to Great Places! You're off and away!"
While the children's book's message of exploring the world and doing great things is very uplifting, as you can imagine, there are only so many ways to use the book's words before the speeches all begin to run together in our memory.
So imagine our surprise when a commencement speech took place two weeks ago that not only said something new, at first glance the message did not appear to be all that nice: "You're not special."
This commencement address was given at Wellesley High School in Wellesley, Massachusetts by English teacher David McCullough, Jr. (His father, David McCullough, Sr., is the noted historian and author.) McCullough probably risked personal harm when he dared to use that phrase several times in his speech, along with others, to a group of graduating high school seniors that are right in the middle of what has been called Generation E. The "E" stands for entitlement.
Some of the other thoughts that McCullough shared:
"You are not special. You are not exceptional."
"Contrary to what your soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent dinosaur, that nice Mr. Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia.... you're nothing special."
"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..... But do not get the idea you're anything special. Because you're not."
"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."
"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."
Before we go any farther, let us assure you that Mr. McCullough made it out of the graduation ceremony alive and unharmed.
The speech reminded us of a recent incident with one of our own children. One of them had been able to have a great deal of success at his chosen sport and had won two tournaments in a row. As we were preparing to leave for a third tournament, we told his coach that we were looking forward to when he lost a tournament. Did we wish for him to lose, to fail? No. But we also realized that there are as many lessons to be learned from losing as there are from winning. How would he react to losing? Would he be respectful to the winner? Would he quit? Would he work harder for the next tournament?
McCullough references the same thought later in his address:
"I also hope you've learned enough to recognize how little you know... how little you know know now... at the moment... for today is just the beginning. It's where you go from here that matters."
So what McCullough was really saying to this newly-minted group of high school graduates was that no one was entitled to be thought of as special. In every endeavor in life there will be those who excel, those who do, and those who fail. It is how we react to whichever of those three categories that we find ourselves in that helps to define our lives.
But McCullough went one more step. At the end of his speech he went on to encourage the students - and maybe some of the parents in the audience - to push themselves to do more. Not for the end goal but for the "doing" itself.
"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. Don't wait for inspiration or passion to find you. Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands..... 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."
We encourage all the recent high school graduates - and those who are a little older and are already working on graduating through life - to take heart in McCullough's message. Carpe diem - seize the day - and push yourself to continue learning and striving to accomplish whatever you set your eyes upon. But don't do it for the finish line. Do it for the race and all the joys, knowledge, and, yes, even the scraped knees and tumbles along the way.
Because only then will you be special.
(Editor's note: David McCullough, Jr.'s full commencement speech can be read at: http://www.theswellesleyreport.com/2012/06/wellesley-high-grads-told-youre-not-special/ or it can be watched on You Tube.)