Commencement Cold Water

Commencement Cold Water June 9, 2012

David McCollough, speaking to the 2012 graduates at Wellesley High School:

No, commencement is life’s great ceremonial beginning, with its own attendant and highly appropriate symbolism. Fitting, for example, for this auspicious rite of passage, is where we find ourselves this afternoon, the venue. Normally, I avoid cliches like the plague, wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole, but here we are on a literal level playing field. That matters. That says something. And your ceremonial costume… shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all. Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, 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.

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! And now you’ve conquered high school… and, indisputably, here we all have gathered for you, the pride and joy of this fine community, the first to emerge from that magnificent new building…

But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.

The empirical evidence is everywhere, numbers even an English teacher can’t ignore. Newton, Natick, Nee… I am allowed to say Needham, yes? …that has to be two thousand high school graduates right there, give or take, and that’s just the neighborhood Ns. Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That’s 37,000 valedictorians… 37,000 class presidents… 92,000 harmonizing altos… 340,000 swaggering jocks… 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs. 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. Imagine standing somewhere over there on Washington Street on Marathon Monday and watching sixty-eight hundred yous go running by. And consider for a moment the bigger picture: your planet, I’ll remind you, is not the center of its solar system, your solar system is not the center of its galaxy, your galaxy is not the center of the universe. In fact, astrophysicists assure us the universe has no center; therefore, you cannot be it. Neither can Donald Trump… which someone should tell him… although that hair is quite a phenomenon.

“But, Dave,” you cry, “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. In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another–which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — 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, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole. No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it… Now it’s “So what does this get me?” As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans. It’s an epidemic — and in its way, not even dear old Wellesley High is immune… one of the best of the 37,000 nationwide, Wellesley High School… where good is no longer good enough, where a B is the new C, and the midlevel curriculum is called Advanced College Placement. And I hope you caught me when I said “one of the best.” I said “one of the best” so we can feel better about ourselves, so we can bask in a little easy distinction, however vague and unverifiable, and count ourselves among the elite, whoever they might be, and enjoy a perceived leg up on the perceived competition. But the phrase defies logic. By definition there can be only one best. You’re it or you’re not.


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  • Chris

    Lots I agree with but… Do we really want a world where “there can be only one best. You’re it or you’re not.” Sounds like feeding American exceptionalism and individualistic glorification. Not exactly what Jesus was aiming at. I do applaud the emphasis that no one should consider oneself more important or better than others though. A mix of positive and troubling in the speech. Words can inspire and empower and they can demean and influence cutthroat behavior. I think he ended up doing some of both from comments I’ve read on other sites linking the speech.

  • Patrick

    I took it as a call for humility myself. “There’s only 1 that is “the best”( left unsaid, “and it probably isn’t you or me or anyone else”). My guess is he meant no one should make that claim.

    Speaking to very wealthy kids, this is a provocative speech to say the least.

  • DRT

    I could not make it but 3-5 minutes (it seemed like 10) into the speech. Did it have a point other than being rude and a wet blanket? They are special, they had the only downer commencement speaker ever.

  • Thank you. I may include this as a reading in my freshmen comp college class. 🙂

  • Paul D.

    So far, so good, but please click on the link and read it ALL the way thorugh.

  • That’s the law, good and strong…now where do I hear the gospel? (Not on the public lawn…)

  • Tom F.

    Feels one-sided to me. As I see it, kids don’t need to feel objectively special to everyone. (Adults don’t need to feel that way either.) Everyone needs to feel really special to a few people (and to God), and then, most of the time, they can handle it when they are just normal to everyone else. Point in case: most narcissist have deep wounds from the people who should have thought them special in their lives.

    So yes, I think the idea that this “specialness” can come from getting a participation trophy is silly. And saying, “You are special” is meaningless. “You are special to me” on the other hand, is worth its weight in gold, if its real and its genuine. And yes, I think I could empirically prove that the more people a kid has say to them “You are special to me”, the better off they will be.

    And that’s what commencement is about. It isn’t special that 800 kids walk across a stage. It’s special when one kid that you know walks across the stage and they matter to you and you matter to them. If kids know this, than they can go take on a world where they are just normal.

  • Victoria

    Tom F. — beautifully said.

  • Mark Nieweg

    At first I thought, with all the ways occassions such as these try to set us apart as special, that this speech was a good antidote. But as I read the comments I can see it as a mixed bag. Two passages came to mind while reading it that could frame our lives properly:

    Luke 17:7-10 “But who is there among you, having a servant plowing or keeping sheep, that will say, when he comes in from the field, ‘Come immediately and sit down at the table,’and will not rather tell him, ‘Prepare my supper, clothe yourself properly, and serve me, while I eat and drink. Afterward you shall eat and drink’? Does he thank that servant because he did the things that were commanded? I think not. Even so you also, when you have done all the things that are commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants. We have done our duty.’”

    Romans 12:3 For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.

  • Bob Smallman

    His closing line:

    “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.”

  • It is what it is. Yes, we need to give our kids a balanced sense of self-worth. Nevertheless, the reality is – except in our eyes – the world will most likely see them as nothing special. Even the Bible seems to indicate that individuals are nothing special. They fill a role as part of the “body” but they do not stand out as special. If I don’t fill my role in the body, God is not going to say – “Oh, well I guess that body will never be complete.” No – he raises someone else up who will fill that role. Heck, the graveyard is full of people who thought they were indispensable. 🙂

  • Tami M

    Tom F, that was a really good take away. Thanks.

    We don’t need to be falsely inflating everyone’s sense of self-worth with unearned accolades. But, do we really need to tear down kids at one of the major earned achievements in their lives? I can imagine sitting there, my youthful hopes and idealism crumbling around me and my dreams just evaporating. I’m not special. Go be a cog. Or make them. Don’t dream. Don’t strive.

  • Fish

    Would you tell a genius at physics she wasn’t special? How about the coach telling a player, right before he comes up to bat, that he’s just average?

    Words become flesh. If you program your child to believe he or she is nothing special, they will do nothing special. I just texted my daughter the other day to tell her she is the smartest kid I know. Maybe that’s shading the truth, but boy it motivated her through a tough time.

    When people cry out against meaningless accolades, sometimes I hear bitterness. It doesn’t cost anything to be positive. I am not about telling someone they did a great job when they failed – I will be clear about the failure – but neither do I indulge in negativity just to keep their feet on the ground.

  • John Inglis

    Gee, is that what it was like when Nietzsche was valedictorian for his highschool grad?

    Whether the points made are true or not is irrelevant, given the context. It’s a grad.

    His speech was the socially inept equivalent of telling Auntie Jo at the funeral of her husband Jim that the deceased was having an affair with the neighbour, or perhaps the equivalent of defecating in daylight on your neighbour’s front lawn.

    Really, really, uncalled for. He deserved to be pelted with eggs.

    Also, really really lame opening–to mock clichés by using them? Old, done before, uncreative, and not funny.