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Sorry kids, you’re not special: a teacher’s message to grads

Massachusetts high-school teacher David McCullough is making the Internet rounds for his recent commencement speech to a graduating class.

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High-five, kiddo. You've done it! You're an exceptional, unique young adult! All appropriate things to tell high-school kids as they embark on a hopeful, promising future, right?

Not for Massachusetts high-school teacher David McCullough. His commencement speech to a graduating class in Wellesley, west of Boston, was quite the mood-killer – or reality check – depending on whom you ask.

"Do not get the idea you're anything special. Because you're not," he told the kids.

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"Contrary to what your … soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh-grade report card … 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 cited an "epidemic" in American parenting – even himself, a father of four – of pampering, bubble wrapping, doting on and congratulating every tiny achievement of children. (You can read the full text here.)

"If everyone is special, no one is."

If a student trip to build a medical clinic in Guatamala was more about bragging rights and resumé enhancement than it was for Guatamalans' well-being, the endeavor is cheapened, Mr. McCullough argued.

Some might call this guy a negative Nancy and a serious downer – but Twitter went wild with support. "Greatest commencement speech ever," said one user (twitter.com/steveborek). "Thank you for the reminder," wrote another. (twitter.com/ali_garrity)

Mr. McCullough went on to argue for the pursuit of education and adventure not for the end goal of being special and rewarded, but for the experience itself – a far more acceptable, uplifting message.

The teacher defended his speech on Fox News today by saying, "The more independence we give them, the better off they are. … They need to stumble – so often parents are there to throw pillows on the floor."

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Commencement speeches – the great ones – can make a long-lasting impression on parents, kids and YouTube viewers everywhere. Who can forget Steve Jobs to Stanford ("Stay hungry, stay foolish") and Conan O'Brien to Harvard ("Fall down, make a mess, break something occasionally")? But few have a hard, biting dose of reality like Mr. McCullough's.

"I took seriously the responsbility of sending these kids of into the world – going out there with an inflatable sense of self is doing them a disservice," he said.

What do you think: Should we tell kids they're special? And what would you tell high-school grads today?

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About the Author
Editor in the Opinion section

Amberly McAteer is an editor in the Opinion section at The Globe and Mail. She has been a homepage editor, online editor and community editor in Features - including Life, Travel, Style, Arts and Books. She's written columns about her quest to run a 10K and find the perfect dog. More

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