June 9, 2012 -- Critics were shocked to hear David McCullough tell a graduating class of high school seniors that they are "not special," but the students and parents of Wellesley, Mass., school are rallying around their favorite teacher.
Bucking the norm for such speeches, McCullough skipped the platitudes in favor of some blunt talk, telling the class of 2012 in the affluent Boston suburb last Friday that although they may have been "pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped" by their parents, "none of you is special."
While the speech sparked a media frenzy, it was a huge hit in Wellesley, where several audience members said McCullough's realism was a breath of fresh air.
The words "You are not special" have been taken out of context, McCullough said in an interview. "The point was to celebrate our common humanity. I think all 6.8 billion of us deserve to be treated with respect."
McCullough urged graduates to guard against developing an inflated sense of self-worth, reminding them that despite the love of their parents, they will have to earn their successes in the future.
"The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you're a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer," he said in the speech.
Cynthia Ballantyne, mother of 2012 graduate Ian, said the speech struck some as overly sarcastic. But for her, McCullough was just telling the truth.
"It's a speech people are going to remember because he said things that everyone knows, but no one dares say," Ballantyne said. "Our kids have lived rather charmed lives."
McCullough also sought to draw attention to a tendency among well-meaning parents to pressure their children to collect achievements for the purpose of being able to put them "on the mantelpiece." The accomplished child has become a "suburban status symbol," he said, adding that he may be contributing to that trend himself.
Speaking from the car as he drove his son, who recently graduated from high school in nearby Sudbury, Mass., to a baseball game Friday, McCullough said, "I'm in the middle of it myself. I'm not wagging my bony puritanical finger. I'm subject to the same temptations."
The speech, which has been picked up by television networks, newspapers and online media, "got people thinking," said Anne Rolincik, mother of graduating senior Michael. While it may have rubbed some people the wrong way, she said, the overwhelming majority of audience members were impressed with McCullough's audacity and pleased with his message.
"I initially thought 'Where are you going with this?' But actually he was just giving kids a reality check," her husband Paul chimed in.
Wellesley Superintendent Bella Wong, who stood at the podium while McCullough was delivering the speech, said the school district has not received any complaints from parents. The speech encourages students to "reflect on their place in the world" and concludes with a supportive message, she said.
By all accounts, McCullough, whose father is the renowned historian of the same name, is among the most highly regarded teachers at Wellesley High School. He was chosen as the ceremony's faculty speaker by a vote of the graduating class.
In his classes, which range from creative writing to Shakespeare, McCullough favors discussions over lectures, arranging desks – including his – in a circle, 2012 valedictorian Daniel Miron said.
McCullough said in the past week he has received compliments from around the country as the story of his speech spread from Wellesley to Boston and then overseas. While some headlines have cast his words in a negative light – the Daily Mail, a British newspaper, called his speech a "bizarre rant" – McCullough said he has only heard flattering responses.
McCullough also delivered Wellesley's faculty speech in 2006, when he implored graduates to "carpe the heck out of every diem." In a self-allusion, McCullough closed his 2012 speech with a warning that his call six years ago to seize the day was not a "license for self-indulgence."
"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."