The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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June 14, 2012

Dear grads: None of you is special

The world loves a hostile or challenging graduation speech, one that eschews the warmth and supportiveness and grand inspirational sweep of the usual thing. Take the recent, interestingly bitter graduation speech delivered by a Wellesley High School teacher, David McCullough, with his mild-mannered preppie demeanor, wire glasses, purple striped tie: "None of you is special. You are not special. None of you is exceptional."

In one transcendent part of the speech, which on the whole flirts pleasingly with being entirely out of control, he says, "Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating . . . that's 37,000 valedictorians . . . 340,000 swaggering jocks . . . 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs." Although he tries to end on a more uplifting note, and move the speech into more conventional territory of inspiration, and caring about other people, the true heat of the speech is in its critique of the emergent generation he believes is overly managed, overly protected and exquisitely nurtured: "Yes, you've been pampered, cossetted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped." (Though really, read carefully, this is a critique of their parents.)

McCullough's suggestion is that their confidence, their carefully bolstered self-esteem, might be unearned. He argues that they are operating under a false impression of their own centrality and vividness. (As he puts it, "hundreds gasp at delight with your every tweet.") The speech could be read as very practical, useful advice for these students, an explicit, tough love exhortation to do something interesting, unusual, extraordinary, not just to think they are interesting, unusual, extraordinary. But it could also be read as a statement of finely wrought contempt.

Every time it happens that someone breaks out of the inspirational platitudes with a hostile or challenging commencement speech, people are ruffled and interested, and it seems like an anomaly or maybe a mistake. But these mini-nervous breakdowns in commencement speeches are a recognizable genre, borrowing heavily from the truth-telling ambience of a J.D. Salinger story or novel. The outward stance "I am not going to tell you the fake thing you think you are going to hear" is very common, though few achieve the authentic surprise, the true frisson of a graduation speech that shakes people up, and almost never does it get as good as "2,185,967 pairs of Uggs."

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