Sunday, May 18, 2014

You're Not Special

For some time, I have considered writing a post about graduation since I'm watching yet another group of young people pass on to college, military, or the work force. I didn't want to write the ordinary "head into the world and do your best" kind of post. 

Yesterday, my husband asked me to listen to an interview on NPR with David McCullough, Jr., son of the famous author of 1776 and John Adams. McCullough, Jr.,a high school English teacher at Wellesley High School in Boston, was asked to deliver the commencement address to the Class of 2012. His speech, which he said he wrote the morning of the commencement, informed the graduates that they are not special. Actually, he tells them that nine times throughout the speech, driving home the point. 

At one point in his oration, he explains his view: "You see, if everyone is special, then no one is.  If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless [...]  we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.  We have come to see them as the point - and we're happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that's the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece."

Hearing this speech, I immediately thought of what we teachers say all the time: many of the kids we teach today have a sense of entitlement, like they deserve more without having to work for it. We see parents who aren't satisfied with the C his child earned in a challenging, upper-level English class because his kid has previously made A's in English. Therefore, it must be the teacher's fault. Also there are the athletes who have been told since T-ball days that they are special because they can hit a ball. Consequently, they are above working hard in academics.

I hate to use the old "when I was coming up" line, but I don't remember children feeling so entitled. I saw how hard my parents worked to send me to school, and I appreciated it. I didn't expect to be given anything, especially a grade by a teacher. I think the difference is that today, parents who work feel that they have to make up to the child for not being at home all the time. Or maybe they are working so they can give the child more. Whichever reason, these parents are creating their own monsters.  

I know that the problem of youth isn't a new one. In fact, Socrates said, “Our youth now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for their elders and love chatter in place of exercise; they no longer rise when elders enter the room; they contradict their parents, chatter before company; gobble up their food and tyrannize their teachers.”

Fortunately, not all children are this way. I have taught kids who may not be the smartest but have such a strong work ethic that I know they will accomplish great things. I also have taught lots who are super smart and will set the world on fire. I still have hope for the youth of today. Every year, I see people eager to help others by giving of themselves. These are the ones who will make an impact in the world, not to impress anyone but to know themselves that they accomplished something or helped someone. They will also be the ones paying my Social Security. 

Toward the end of his speech, McCullough makes some excellent points to encourage the students to grasp all they can out of life. "Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands," he says. "Rather than You Only Live Once, it should be You Live Only Once… but because YLOO doesn't have the same ring, we shrug and decide it doesn't matter."

He continues his encouragement by telling them to "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.  Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion-and those who will follow them.  And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself.  The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you're not special. Because everyone is."

You can watch the speech or read the transcript here: McCullough's Commencement Speech

And to end with a bit of humor, consider this statement from a commencement address by President George W. Bush: "To those of you who received honors, awards and distinctions, I say well done. And to the C students, I say you too may one day be president of the United States."