2 years ago it was a commencement speech gone viral in which a high school English teacher seemed to use the occasion to berate students for thinking they were special, for thinking they were anything great or noteworthy; some saw it as a well-timed reality check for the selfie, self-absorbed generation, capitalizing on the new trend of saying kids are each unique not special, one can deduce to keep parents all from thinking their kid is the next Einstein, Nobel peace prize winner. Though most thought those words interchangeable in the American English lexicon, if not in the standard dictionary, be it Webster’s or the Oxford variety from across the pond and holds little results in curbing parents continued belief in their child’s unfounded abilities to individuals sounding off on the phenomenon. But others were understandably critical, and not just parents who also recognized it was a backhanded commentary to them, their parenting style or that some person, some teacher dared insinuate their child wasn’t as special as they thought them to be. More came to the conclusion he sabotaged the event not singularly by tainting the listening students commencement speech with his choice words, his verbal slap in the face, ignorance of 21st century communication ultimately turning the spotlight on him instead of the students who had incidentally earned the right to be celebrated. But by failing to live up to the backbone of his professional subject matter both as an educator and someone charged with teaching English, specifically literature; that he wasn’t better able to express his ideas, get his point across than to be unnecessarily cruel, discouraging and displaying thinly veiled heartlessness at what was supposed to be an acknowledgement of genuine achievement. Well now that “you’re not special” speech has been morphed into a much larger a book; several minutes becoming several pages imparting purported nuggets of forgotten wisdom to his other demographic, parents, about how to handle life and their kids, to students about who they are and who they are likely to be if they take his advice to heart, try to live beyond themselves. News anchors commenting those who didn’t get it (the speech) then, get the wisdom now after reading, having the book explained, or so they would like to think.
Delving into the many layers that is theMcCullough philosophy, it is obvious he still hasn’t learned key lessons about the world, the way life works and most importantly his audience, whether he seeks to motivate, inform those listening or benefiting from his tutelage. Reprising what I said 2 years ago in a larger piece bordering on exposé about the realities of success and what we are truthfully sending our students off to in a nutshell it’s the negative people will again take away from his “lesson,” the unintended, far from productive or positive, impact. [Below] is a visual representation of a travesty that has now been explained away, that too many agreed with in the first place taking into account the coddled nature of the current crop of graduates. Above is a duel travesty yet the travesty isn’t a high school teacher who butchered the occasion while trying to impart some reality to young people about the world they are going into, by telling them they are not special, the travesty isn’t that he tried to get media obsessed, self-absorbed young people to go beyond that stereotype as they move out into the world, by telling them and their parents kids should stumble, should fail, it is to be expected, the travesty isn’t that people’s such strong reactions put the focus on him, not the students’ achievements, or that they misunderstood the lessons he was trying to impart. The travesty is, here is a teacher who admittedly had to be told recently what a blog was, who got a powerful lesson himself in the blogosphere, post his unconventional speech, who naively thought he was speaking to students and their parents, having no idea in the age of video phones, i-pads and the latest i-phone that he was potentially speaking to the entire world then had the audacity to state on a morning show his students attention spans are less than even 4-5 years ago. Worse this is an English teacher, teaching a subject encompassing grammar, a love of the written word, classic literature to the very foundations of communication, who doesn’t know what these things are, who doesn’t understand how they impact the way we communicate, write and transmit ideas. Honestly who would listen to someone attentively who didn’t know those things considering he may have budding journalists in his class, videographers, creative writers, students who have a personal blog, who are looking into it as a professional or money venture, have already made it one?
The travesty is, here is a person who should have a command of the written and spoken word, who had the perfect opportunity to better affect his message by using what young people think about themselves to make his point. He should have said you are special not because your parents always say so, your teachers have been trained to say that at the least glimmer of talent, the trophies in your room, the friends you have, the clubs you belong to, the colleges you got into, but because everyone, including you has unique skills, abilities, insights, talents. The challenge for you now is to go out do something special and unique with your lives; the challenge for you is to use them not only to the betterment of yourself but of society, the planet. The challenge is for you to go out and do what you can for someone else, to make sure they know they are special too. Not only does it sound better, it’s true to what he wanted to say- selflessness is the most important thing. And the travesty continues in his monumentally failed understanding that it doesn’t matter if these kids grew up in affluence, that as expected, many are headed to the Ivy League, you can’t be selfless when you can’t even take care of yourself, when even if you financially, academically graduate, do well, you can’t find a job. When if you do find a job it’s minimum wage, even with your better job, you are drowning in student loan debt, your back on your parent’s couch to deal with said debt, while you grew up in affluence you end up living in anything but even after doing everything right, taking advantage of all that was presented to you. You cannot practice selflessness when you are too busy trying to survive. This is the picture of what these young people are headed into in the age of occupy Wall Street, and this is what a teacher has to say to them. It’s insulting and he should be ashamed of himself.”
Oddly against that candid, blunt, unvarnished backdrop David McCullough Jr. is described according to his own students as the teacher every kid wants to be taught by, who is teaching not for the paycheck, teaching less to the grade, the test and instead teaching to be sure every individual student gets something out of it, comes off as the kind of teacher every parent wants their child to have. So are critics all wrong and he all right? Unfortunately no, perhaps it would be one thing if he had written his book, gained national attention after 10, 20, 30 years of teaching, even better after retirement from the profession altogether; however, combining the speech with the book utterly cheapens the “message” making it look like he is selling mediocrity for his own benefit, for the sake of his own newfound image. Further he remains to this day fundamentally clueless about the origins of what he sees as problems; he completely misses parents meaning when they call their child special, the other half of that sentence usually being special to them. Isn’t that what parents are supposed to feel about their children; isn’t there something wholly wrong with a parent giving their own child the idea they don’t matter, they simply exist, they are nothing and nobody, when enough of the world will do that to them anyway…oh? Neither is there anything wrong with causing your child/children to believe they are the center of your universe, that you care that much about them; the challenge is to make sure they understand they are not the center of the entire universe…oops. Like it or not, key parts of parenting involve wheedling, cajoling, yes coddling and there are worse things to be called than sweetie pie; nor does this “doting upon” lead to an inflated ego, we’ve been everything from trained to expect from them, to assigning to them the moment they dare display any self-confidence whatsoever, express an intense passion related to an activity, a potential career field. He himself, in the original interview, describes those in his classes over the years as good kids, excluding the notion he sees “afluenza” cases, fears them becoming such, fears we are bringing up an entire “afluenza generation;” also standing out, he calls the students he teaches kids of privilege who understand the expectations coming with that privilege, who feel the strain of those expectations shouldered upon them, milestones they are pushed to reach, who they are projected to be. Raising the question are high school, college students, graduates today gaining an oversized sense of self, self-importance, selfishness, an exaggerated perception of their own abilities because their being artificially propped up by loved ones, teachers conjuring overly excited reactions to the least clearing of a hurdle, or are they being mandated to be special, make themselves special to meet the standards set forth by their parents? Because again when interviewed advertising his book, he stated most kids were average and parents had a hard time accepting that. Important information seeing as which one it is garners two very different effects; yes a child constantly called special, in the context of monumental, stupendous, who probably isn’t, has the potential to create what he, we think we see in our current young people. Contrastingly a child routinely told to be special, make themselves special, attempt to attain things far surpassing their known capacities will inevitably end up having a low opinion of themselves, their skills owing to never being able to measure up to their parents’ visions of grandeur. Imagine that, parents who care about their children, found a simply way to tell them so, using there’s that word again, special, rather than the blatant abuse, neglect, aloofness present on the news. Or more to the crowd our English teacher is speaking, writing to, having a child solely so you have an heir to carry on the family legacy, the locally famous family name, to someday sit on an elaborate board of directors, a child brought into existence expressly to satisfy their parents fantasies regarding what having children would be like, to fulfill their parents unrealized dreams.
Besides the preceding proving this is distinctly a first world problem, despite “if everyone gets a trophy trophies become meaningless,” we still push our kids, our young people toward the “trophies” of a high school diploma, college degree, not only allow, but encourage, them to participate in competitive sports, other competitions where they do keep score, there is a definite winner, obvious loser. The former two he supports more than in teaching, using his job to get students to understand literature and life lessons, but by agreeing to draft a commencement speech in the first place, agreeing to appear, going forward with the controversial choice, finally culminating in writing and publishing his book. He still can’t get away from the success narrative, resist herding young people toward the acceptable, needed “trophies” diplomas, degrees, tech, trade school certifications, career ladders, promotions; because, that would go against ingrained social parameters, mean the privileged kids, the kids enjoying every advantage, kids he hangs all our hopes on, without whom we are again doomed, this time as a nation, aspire to nothing, dream nothing, achieve nothing and his mental paradigm can’t handle the shift. Even going, what can easily be called too far, using some arcane form of reverse psychology telling them they’re not special to get them to become special, do something he, the world will deem worthy of calling them special; the full title of the book being You’re Not Special and other Encouragements. Beyond his skewed thinking he actually has a chance of spurring young people to action, increasing their positive influence in the world via his technique, it’s quite a lot of work for all of us doomed to be average. Simultaneously, too bad he is putting his own dooms day projections into motion giving said speech, peddling said book; after all, why carpe the heck out of the Diem, why do what you love because you love it, if everything is so meaningless? Answering his earlier statements about the privileged kids doing for others, helping their community, giving back to the planet; we can picture them saying why, if I’m not special, if I don’t matter, why should I bother? If we set out to give them such a low opinion of their potential, we will see them say; shouldn’t that be someone who is special’s problem, shouldn’t someone with better capabilities than mine tackle the problems of today, shouldn’t someone better qualified handle it, shouldn’t they devise a solution? Then nothing gets solved, nothing changes and America enters a greater stage of stagnation than it already suffers from, according to many; thanks Mr. McCullough. At least nicknamed de-motivational, un-motivational posters have the advent of being funny, hold elements of satire, sarcasm, and everyone recognizes that sarcasm, hyperbole, punch line for what it is; this just smacks of, as one commenter put it, “What got up his rectum? I can see why he hasn’t been invited to speak at any commencement speeches since. Every commencement speaker thinks that their words are imparting the wisdom of the ages and they will echoed down the corridors of history. When David McCullough Jr. can walk into the Total Perspective Vortex and walk out still retaining his sanity then he has earned the right to get up there and start disrespecting students. Until then, he’s just another one of those nasty people who like to pop bubbles and tell 8 year olds that there’s no such thing as Santa Claus.” [Sic]
Also he is still not addressing why we are all, the majority doomed to be average, that it has less to do with a lack of drive, ambition, talent, capability and more to do with opportunity, the doors that open or don’t. The pure unadulterated fact we were collectively lying to kids long before we started calling them special, coddling, cosseting, feting, fawning over them, encasing them in bubble wrap, doing every possible thing we could to ensure they didn’t fail, padding their meager accomplishments in an overwhelming amount of useless platitudes, when we told them to relentlessly pursue education, informal, formal education i.e. college, trade school, cooking school, mechanic training down to concepts self-taught, learned from friends, whose dad knew all about thing X and agreed to show their child’s best friend, and they would go far, endless doors would open for them, anything was possible. Granted it shouldn’t be a lie; getting educated, completing compulsory education, going on to college, being accepted, going through a specialized training program should garner opportunities, should translate into possibilities. Mobilizing an idea, trying to create a business, an organization, still holding some success, should lead to better heights than it does, yet recent experience points to the exact opposite. Another gentleman in the 2012 compilation CBS news showed as a lead in to their story on McCullough, including snippets of more down to earth graduation speeches, was correct when he said, in part; if you’ve has success you’ve had luck and with that luck comes obligation, that they owe a debt, not just to their interpretation of divinity, but to the unlucky. And notice he did it without making a splash; he made young people understand their responsibility without the apparent gratuitous sensationalism. Aaron Sorkin, best known for his work on The West Wing, featured too doing a pun about well-educated dumb people working because everyone knew it was a joke and had the upside of actually being funny. What’s not funny, no one is challenging their colleagues, fellow businessmen, fellow hiring managers, bosses, overseers across the country to alter the climate of work in America, not a one is calling them to restore it to being what it was when they came up, what it was when they were able to achieve so much. Return it to being about what you know rather than who, how you work not how you look i.e. walking gate, condition of teeth, whether you wear glasses, then coming down on this generation about superficiality; offering internships, apprenticeships and simple information about careers, how young people, everyone who wants it can get where you are, rectifying the catch 22 we’ve caught them in, the wolves we’ve thrown them unto.
Mr. you’re not special ignores other sources “deluding” kids into thinking they are special, why they want to be special, as he characterizes it, sans teachers, coaches, parents conditioning, absent reality TV both glamorizing fame as a goal and causing everyone to believe they can be famous; it could be seeing someone their own age slightly older, slightly younger on the news, invited to a talk show for creating a business of skin care products, computer games, locker magnets, organizing service projects, inventions, already garnering adult attention for their skills at estate sales, being a salesmen of any product, their expert knowledge of subjects from vacuums to politics. One can guess he never saw the Oprah shows featuring the worlds smartest kids, the worlds most talented kids, kids and teens guest starring on the Tonight Show rattling off facts pertaining to to politics, listing all the presidents in order when most in their age bracket are mastering ABC’s, the amateur expert on vacuum cleaners or the young man who wanted Jay Leno’s job someday. It could be connecting with heroes, idols finding elements in their story you can relate to and thinking if they can do it, I can too, if they can overcome these obstacles I can too. It might just be how their friends react to a certain talent, skill; I myself didn’t get the idea I was special from my parents, my mother, courtesy of teachers trained to parrot false encouragements, but thanks to quality teachers who honestly saw something in me, who were happy to deal with a kid whose future they couldn’t readily predict in the negative, told me I was smart, capable had potential, should try things, should go to college, should go to grad school. I got no shortage of career advice, suggestions from teachers, family, friends who saw me do something and say I should be in X profession. I connected with my hero and wanted to be just like him; he was famous not fictitious, was one of a kind not fabricated. Maybe just maybe all this drama about being special comes from seeing those remarkable kids, young individuals similar to them and wanting to show the world they have as much talent potential; maybe their ideal isn’t the illusions crafted by their parents but taken from the one in a million who achieve the impossible, improbable and wholly unlikely. Looking at the world and thinking that if you can you owe it to others to attempt to join their rarified air, looking at them and thinking you have a lot of catching up to do. It wasn’t the fictional characters on TV driving me to try and be special; it was the real ones. Conversely I didn’t either get a swelled head or immediately come up with delusions of grandeur when a writing class teacher entered my poem in a newspaper contest, give up when nothing eventually came of it. I was happy she thought it was good enough; it caused me to think I could possibly have a future in writing, a career field with real jobs allowing me to do something I’d thought about since the 3rd grade. The next year when she offered me a chance to go to a workshop in drafting a poem and going through the editing process, I turned it down thinking I was better off at school, cautious it might interfere with my own developing process. Years later I wasn’t jealous, envious when local news featured a high schooler whose poem earned them a trip to Washington or when a young girl was featured having written/published a children’s book profits hoped to pay for her schooling to reach another goal, pediatrician. Jealously came later, 1,000 doors slammed in my face later, when post reading a 9/11 themed poem to a job class a veteran suggested I send it to the White House and all I got was an automated reply. After having a man too old to have been there fighting back tears, when I was in college and a writing teacher tried to get a poem of mine placed in the school literary magazine and I lost out to another student who wrote about their experience tending bar, when I read my poem about Middle Earth to a friend and fellow Lord of the Rings fan leaving him speechless; that’s when I recognized I had something.
Still to me these were minor setbacks; it was after getting my degree, being shunned from jobs for want of an internship I was never told I needed, experience I couldn’t get, having several more encounters with people who began conversations, read my work, were brought to tears, were awed, who told me I should publish them, whose head I had to pull out of the clouds, back down to earth about my abilities, knowing there was an audience out there who would buy it if it were available that jealously took root. It was after fighting clueless job placement people drafting a letter of inquiry and shopping it to every newspaper nationwide asking for freelance work to “love the edgy voice of reason, wish I could hire you, keep us in mind if you ever move here,” answering ads on Craig’s list to my little money freelance gig that envy and anger set in. Yet said anger was directed at a broken system, incompetent people charged with facilitating other’s careers who hadn’t the faintest idea how to perform their job, the cruelties of fate watching people like my online friend be on school papers in high school, college, having started papers in some cases developing a career in journalism and she didn’t even want it; she wanted to be a lawyer. However if that doesn’t work out, she had loads of journalism experience to fall back on; for the young lady going to Washington it’s a pleasant surprise, not a dream come true. Hardly escaping my notice regarding the children’s book story was the aunt in the publishing business; it wasn’t others having their moment, opportunities seemingly floating by for them to grab hold of than bothered, to this day bothers me. It was even after solid efforts to create my own, seeing a positive response from people around me distant classmates, virtual strangers, I continue to have nothing to show for it, while those people for unknown reasons get chance upon chance, opportunity after opportunity handed to them. Returning to our supposedly beloved, slightly out of sync, English teacher, he unfortunately severely downplays what a participation trophy, an attendance award can do for the kid who won’t get any other kind of trophy, accolade; on a bigger scale it acknowledges you were there, you were a small part of something. Isn’t that why we celebrate, see feel good news stories spotlighting the 90 year old janitor loved at the elementary school he cleans, the 70, 80, 90 year old granny, retired teacher reading to kids, volunteering during a school’s reading program, the barbers still at it at 80, 90, because there is something inspirational to them; isn’t that why we do profiles on previous generations alive throughout various parts of history, because there is value gained by their presence, retelling their experiences? Look closely at Special Olympics, multitudes of the awards, medals given there aren’t based on who place 1st, 2nd 3rd even 4th in a race, who had the fastest time, the team scoring the winning goal, landing an incredible golf shot, but revolving around character traits; awards that should mean more based less in natural talent, the superficial and instead grounded in who you are as a human being, effort expended to be kind, exhibit leadership, help others?
Relatedly, the self-esteem movement was onto something; putting the smallest children in caps and gowns has grater magnitude than soothing our need to exaggerate the ordinary. It lets them feel like their bigger counterparts when they desperately need a positive way to be identical to older siblings; when they want to join in, when they want to participate and are constantly told they can’t, they’re too young, not yet. Going through graduation ceremonies, rituals every year marking something as mundane as matriculating from the 4th grade to the 5th grade, to quote The Incredibles, has meaning to the kid who had an outlandishly difficult year, almost didn’t make it, being finally diagnosed with dyslexia. It has more depth to the kid who fought homelessness, foreclosure, a parent’s loss of job to be here, be focused enough to do something seen so basic, go from one grade to the next; sadly, like the teacher to come after him, Bob Parr, AKA Mr. Incredible never understood, vowing to boycott the concept on principle, on moral grounds meant also boycotting his child, being the only father not in attendance, not because of work, conflicting sibling scheduled events, an emergency, but because he didn’t agree with it. The self-esteem movement, however flawed, wasn’t so wrong after all in linking confidence and performance the way they do; one of my college professors volunteered her time tutoring an elementary student in reading who was far behind, terrified of reading aloud, justifiably fearing ridicule and judgment. Old school mind sets would say this child needs to learn to read to have confidence, not be given hollow confidence in order to read. But there is nothing saying we couldn’t give him confidence in another area to give him to ability to tackle reading; too many simply took the former to mean we were going to substitute platitudes for solid learning.
Concurrently our job may be to prepare children for the road labeled life, not prepare the road of life for our children, yet there is no reason we can’t create an environment conducive to success in rudimentary, needed skills i.e. reading, taking that pressure off; hints why reading with Rover, reading to shelter animals has such a success rate, no one to laugh, point, call names while navigating a new skill. Hey, how could I know; I’m just the person who sat in the class hearing the story. Infuriating, is those old school thinking patterns and by extension McCullough’s, too closely mirror the dunce caps we used to put on children circa 1950, standing them in corners, calling them stupid, dummy, slow, when special ed. was little apart from warehousing kids all day; we’re supposed to know better now. We understand the dynamics of learning disabilities, disorders, genetic ailments causing cognitive delay have even done brain mapping of some behavioral disorders and still someone wants to take us back to that antiquated format? Further despite level playing field, uniform outfits worn during commencement, crossing that stage alphabetically not by class rank, grades, all accomplishments, the lack of them do matter; they shaped who you are. Chronic failure, falling just short of accomplishment, throughout school, in high school primes you for never wanting to try once you leave, for never thinking you can do it out in the world. Similarly those friends, clubs and activities may well mean the difference between having a job and not, having someone who can recommend you for employment or not, later on. What about the kid who needs to be told they are special, needs to be convinced they matter because even though they attend Wellesley high school, live in affluent suburbia, appear to possess only privileged kids, privileged people’s problems, the all American façade comes at the price of physical, sexual, emotional abuse, a parents drug problem, untreated mental illness? Another one of the truths highlighted by Oprah’s years in talk television; you never know what’s transpiring behind closed doors. The path it took to get there does matter especially if, by the time they cross that stage they are already exhausted, worn down like 50 year old soon to be retirees at 18, possessing no more will to fight the next battle having treaded water for so long. I worry about the urban kid, the poor kid, the barely holding on kid wherever they are who hears this speech, in Wellesley’s audience, nationwide who fights everything to get what even the controversial author assumes will be granted, who has one more reason to drop out, join a gang, do drugs, kill themselves all because one man, a should be respectable educator insists on shouting, to the tune of national attention, you’re not special.
Equally lost on our dry, fancies himself to have a sense of humor quasi educator is the reason parents, for whom this is indeed a character flaw, an emotional shortcoming want, have an almost pathological need for their kids to be better than, above average, to be extraordinary, exceptional; because they see it, and rightly so, as the only chance they may have to garner the same means, affluence, opportunity and quality lifestyle they had. Here too is the origin surrounding parents who “intrude into things meant to be their child’s responsibility, believe the least little stumble will occlude some future opportunity” is because today it does; sidestepping Facebook faux pas entailing drugged out, drunken photos, sexting episodes young people are prone to, the posted rant we thought our target, other interested parties wouldn’t find, online comments soiling your digital reputation, letting any advantage, perceived opening to gain skills, experience, go by, regardless of circumstance, translates to never seeing it again. Remember too this generation of parents are the ones one their second and third degrees, yes perhaps living in a predominately affluent area for the sake of their kids, yet just getting by, spreading things too thin. Confronting cases where huge past mistakes are a part of the equation, Mark Wahlberg wouldn’t have been able to get where he has today operating in a 21st century climate; bearing an arrest record, spending time in jail would have dampened his openings for a second chance particularly being white, even if he could overcome the obstacle of no high school diploma, took steps to receive his equivalency. Even in the urban success narrative where eventually famous individuals were able to take their hard upbringing, inner city life into a rap career, into acting into other avenues; stark percentages unsurprisingly return to jail when past crimes catch up to them, end up dead when former beefs, gang rivalries heat up. Think Tupac Shakur and the Notorious BIG naming but two. But again how much can we honestly expect from the man teaching teens all day who had to be told, circa 2012, what a blog was, who got smacked with the tangible solid reality that can come from cyber, virtual reality, who didn’t find the criticism felt good ultimately resorting to writing a book to correct the public’s misconceptions casting him in the light of just as self-obsessed, self-absorbed and consumed by things that don’t really matter as he claims his students to be.
And what about the kids who are special, the people who are special either traced to their astounding IQs, even more what they want to do with them or their selfless philanthropy at a stage when their age mates are hardly aware enough for it to developmentally be about anything but them, and on rare occasions, the wonderful mixture of both. What about the ones who beat the odds; fact is John Mayer barely graduated high school, made it successfully in the music business with next to no formal training. Peter Stebbings got accepted to a New York theater school at age 12, has garnered that into a notable acting career, makes a middle class living almost in spite of avoiding Hollywood, going after every independent project he can find. Never mind you can be special to a variety of people for different reasons hosts of good Samaritans have made a profound impact on equally regular, unadorned lives; bus drivers, police officers talking people off ledges, pulling people out of burning buildings, burning cars off infants, giving someone the shoes off their feet, giving them a place to sleep, who see giving “handouts” as the possible hand up they could be. Dedicated individuals in their jobs who make a difference, create a light in the world just by doing their best, just be being who they are; what David McCullough Jr. was supposed to be. Ironically countering everything he said, everything we think we know, whether it’s about gen Y mindsets, the genesis for success or happiness, foundations of achievement; it’s the kids not indoctrinated with the empirical evidence, the statistical numbers on how many of us are, will be average mediocre, run of the mill accomplish the most. The ones not ingrained with the idea they can fail and that failure is a part of life, get used to it, get over it, are the ones that do the most, usually with an awed world looking on. It’s the parents cultivating an environment allowing kids to explore the things they want to give to the world, demonstrating a commitment to facilitating their child’s goals that see them attain the most, shine the brightest. No Gale King, people who didn’t get it then don’t better understand his message now, let alone agree with it; because, they aren’t supposed to.