In today's world of participation awards, multiple valedictorians, and "helicopter parenting," students have gotten used to thinking of themselves as the center of the universe. And graduates usually expect to get sent off into the world with a reminder of just how special they are. But during his commencement speech at Wellesley High School, in a suburb just outside Boston, Mass., English teacher David McCullough Jr. delivered what could have been, for some, a crushing blow.
"You are not special," he told his audience, resplendent in their new caps and gowns. "You are not exceptional."
McCullough's comments sparked a debate about how high school students should addressed on graduation day, with parents criticizing his cynicism and supporters praising his bold and eloquent choice of words.
McCullough, a veteran English teacher at Wellesley High School and son of the Pulitzer prize winning author and historian David McCullough, reminded the school's graduates that they were just a few of 3.2 million seniors from 37,000 high schools across America. Even a "one in a million" student has about 7,000 counterparts, he said. McCullough urged the graduating seniors not to get caught up in thinking they were that "one in a million" kid.
"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," he told the graduates.
McCullough's speech elicited immediate reaction and the video of his address went viral on YouTube in a matter of days. Some parents complained, saying that the speech was "inappropriate for a high school graduation" and "negative drivel."
News and radio stations reported that many parents reacted badly, but the majority of comments posted on YouTube praised the speech. Many Wellesley High School parents and students left comments of support for their favorite English teacher. Some of the graduates even thanked McCullough for speaking truth to them, and one man suggested "Every US politician should listen to this speech!"
Despite the furor the speech caused, McCullough's indictment of the Millennial Generation is nothing new. Commencement speakers, columnists, and professors have brought attention to the rising problems of a narcissistic generation in recent years.
The overwhelming opinion about the Millennials is that a sense of entitlement made itself at home amidst the chorus of "you're special" and "only the best for you" resounding from overprotective parents. Nicknamed "helicopter parents," these overzealous moms and dads intercede every time their children don't get an A, don't get enough playing time on the field, or don't get picked for that great job. Awards and accolades are no longer earned, but expected. Children are taught that they are special, they deserve everything they want, and mom and dad will make sure they get it.
In giving his speech, McCullough said he wanted to give kids a reality check before they left the safety of home.
"So many of the adults around them - the behavior of the adults around them - gives them this sort of inflated sense of themselves. And I thought they needed a little context, a little perspective," McCullough said in an interview with Fox News. "To send them off into the world with an inflated sense of themselves is doing them no favors."
He did end his speech on a positive note though, urging the students to aspire to do great things for the benefit of others.
"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," he said. "The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you're not special."
"Because everyone is."