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Articles / Applying to College / Are You Special?

Are You Special?

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | June 12, 2012
Are You Special?

For all you newly minted high school graduates and your parents out there, how was the keynote address at your graduation ceremony? Regardless, I'll bet it didn't have any wisdom like this:

You are not special. You are not exceptional.

Contrary to what your u9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh 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! . . . But do not get the idea you're anything special. Because you're not.

Wow. And there's lots more where that came from in Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough, Jr.'s faculty speech to the Class of 2012.

This speech has gone viral and become a national story. Some news reports have proclaimed that McCollough's speech is, "unexpected and poignant;" "had to be said;" "raised numerous eyebrows;" and "[was a] great commencement speech," among other evaluations.

I posted a thread on the College Confidential (CC) discussion forum about this and, predictably, there has been a large number of diverse comments. So, here's an action item for you: Read the full transcript of McCollough's speech, then read the comments on the CC thread. Finally, post your reactions here. Let's see what some CCers think about the Class of 2012 not being special.

- Read the whole piece - it is great! He is basically saying, do something to do it/enjoy it. Don't do something just so you can measure yourself against everyone else.

The trip to Paris phrase, above, also is wonderful.

I did read that the kids and parents thought the speech was great.

- "...pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble wrapped...".

Perfect description of every kid in my county.

- I would like to send this to the music teacher at my son's school who would announce before every class that "You are ALL very talented musicians." No, the prodigy with perfect pitch who just won the concerto competition might be a very talented musician, but not the kid lip synching along to the radio.

And the number of parents telling their kids "good job" at the gym last night was actually a bit sickening. At some point, your kid has to work hard because he or she wants to, not because of what Mommy thinks.

However, I think it's too late to be giving kids the message that you are not special when they graduate from high school. Better to give it a bit earlier and often. (One of our favorite movies at my house is "Akeela and the Bee" mostly for the portrayal of the Chinese dad who keeps saying to this son "Do you want to be number two your whole life?" At least he leaves open to his son the possibility that maybe he won't succeed.) On the video, I enjoyed watching the reactions of the little blonde girl to the left of the speaker. I don't think she'd ever been told "you're not special" before.

- I can't tell you how many times people try to do things that are too hard for them because of the indoctrination that "everyone's special"

That is actually a good result. Some of my best successes have come when I wasn't bright enough to know what I couldn't do.

I love this speech. There is a fine line between encouraging kids and blowing smoke in their ear. I tended to be an encouraging parent who applied a figurative boot to the rear end when needed.

- I can only speak for myself. Growing up in a large single income family full of the typical challenges, we definitely did not feel special. I am sure I have spoiled my daughter by giving her all the encouragement and opportunities I did not have. As a result she is far more accomplished then I was at her age. I always make sure to remind her to keep her feet on the ground. Is this a bad thing?

- The speech rubbed me the wrong way, first because it sounded so cynical and thus uninspiring, and second because I believe competitive high school administrators and teachers are just as guilty of emphasizing activity and achievement for the singular purpose of padding college resumes. I cannot say how many times I've heard them start conversations with, "Colleges like to see...ECs, rigorous course selection, lots of volunteer hours, blah blah blah." I honestly cannot remember a teacher/administrator encouraging students to do those things because of their intrinsic value.

- What puzzles me is people whom are quick to post without knowing anything about David McCullough Jr. I've seen people mis-represent the subject he teaches, his background, his education, his upbringing.....I mean it's really odd to me that people feel ready to just 'jump in' with their opinion about something and decide to just 'guess' about where the speaker was raised, where he comes from..... 2 minutes on the web will fill in a lot of blanks before you post about something or someone.

- For those of you critiquing this based on a transcript, it isn't the same. A speech is intended to be heard once and it either hits or misses based on the one time experience. Quantum, interestingly I live in a Red state but personally I am blue through and through and I don't see this difference in perception as being related to the sometimes incomprehensible division of opinions between blue and red. Personally I didn't love the bash on marriage but I could still laugh and move on amused by the contrast between the permanence of a diploma and the unfortunate dubious perception of the permanence of marriage. I didn't take the talk aboutnot being special as insulting although I expect in a room filled with students who made extrordinary sacrafices, grew up with neglect or who overcame unsurmountable odds to get to the point of achieving a diploma, it could have been taken that way. I expect that there were examples of those students in that room but I also expect they could recognize the characature of their peers and still find it humerous. Nothing said was directly pointed at anyone. In the end I think he tied it all together and I don't think he lost the audience to insults which he would have if they were truely insulted. The way he pulled it together was empowering and freeing. With a message to live an meaningful life filled with passion and purpose.

- I think it's a terrible speech. Frankly, I hate these kinds of speeches and they do a disservice to the graduates.

I know a 40ish tenured social science professor at an Ivy. She studied what's known to be a useless major and then, lord have mercy, went on to get a PhD in her chosen useless field despite that statistically, there were zero jobs. Yet somehow at every level she was able to succeed handsomely.

My kid's music teacher is an outstanding professional union musician in Boston and plays in the pit for all of the Broadway shows and for the orchestra that plays in the Hatshell on the Esplanade for the 4th of July. He's extremely down to earth. Statistically, there was no chance of him getting that kind of gig, so how did he know it was worth pursuing? I know parents who are in horror because their kid wants to be a musician.

There is a guy who posts on the CC board for science majors who tells everyone how useless it is to major in science. Statistically he's right. But is he? Aren't kids who post on CC statistically more likely to care enough to be successful? I find it to be such a self-defeating message.

The message I get from that speech is


That's exactly the wrong message for our nation. What the kids need to hear is that you are all special. Look for something to succeed in. Take calculated risks. Create what wasn't there before. Dare to be great. Many of you will fail. Most people who succeed have previously failed many times and people who are afraid to fail can never succeed. Want it!

The high performing high school has many different kinds of kids from those who really are special, to those who have been beaten to a pulp and suffer depression because no matter how hard they try it's never good enough - yet in a broader community they would be considered stars - to those whose parents spent every nickel to live in that community just to go to that school and the kids have to work in their parents business and can't do ECs.

I can't stand it when people blindly dislike kids from wealth or kids who are smart or kids who have what they don't. All of these kids are individuals and feel pressure and have set standards for themselves.

They ARE all special.

- The kids are laughing throughout

If you watch it, you'll notice that the kids are laughing at many of McCullough's comments - the same comments that the media has snipped out of context and used to make him sound like he's telling the kids that they are all spoiled brats (which is not his point at all).
- Another snippet from McCullough's speech:

David McCullough at Wellesley Commencement: ?You Are Not Special? (Video) - The Daily Beast

“I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance."

In an interview on CBS News, McCullough said that he was trying to say to the kids (and if you watch his speech, you'll understand that he did say this) was, “Selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. That the planet needs them. That if the privileged kids, the kids who have enjoyed every advantage, don't step up, then what chance do we have? … Care for your community. Care for your family."

Here's the interview from CBS News (you'll have to watch a minute or so of other stuff before you get to him):

David McCullough Jr.'s commencement address: You're Not Special - BostonHerald.com

The comments section below awaits yours.
Be sure to check out all my college-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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