That's the part of the discussion that's missing from all the chatter about David McCullough Jr.'s controversial "You Are Not Special" commencement speech. He didn't call the Wellesley High School Class of 2012 a bunch of lowlifes who won't amount to anything. Rather, he was adjusting their lenses so that they could see the world they were about to enter more clearly.
"Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools," McCullough said. "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."
One man's "ouch" is another man's "right on brother," and you can count me among the latter.
I have to rant a bit about this speech...
Well, not about the speech, itself... but about the public's reaction to it. While the message of the speech may have been well received by some of the people at the event, the response from the CNN hosts and our social media peanut gallery has been predictably awful. If the response to this speaker's message is any indicator, there is a surprisingly large group of people who want our kids dropped into a battle arena, and the ones who come out as winners can get a modest trophy and a pat on the back, and the others should be scolded eternally for their failure.
I think the idea that kids are somehow lacking in information that tells them they aren't all that special is rooted on delusional egotism. It's rooted in that same kind of nostalgic navel-gazing that claims safer playgrounds are stunting, participation trophies for 5-year-olds is unacceptable, and music of a bygone era was devoid of the nonsense we see today. It's rooted in priviledge based on what they think everyone else's childhood should be. And it's rooted on subjective memory regarding perceptions of one's own life, as if our memory of our childhood is somehow an accurate representation of what actually happened.
When this speech started making its rounds, I felt the collective arms of hundreds of thousands of people shake their canes at America and tell those kids to get off their lawn.
The reality is that kids are regularly shown that they are part of a huge mass of humanity devoid of any special respect for their place. They are subjected to queues, bureaucracy, and a mind-numbingly impersonal education system. Most will compete in sports and find few accolades for their experience, some will be dogged by a high school coach into wondering whether they have any worth at all. Many will post a video on Youtube, notice that it only gets a handful of views, then wonder whether all those negative comments were telling the truth. An unfortunate percentage will face psychological illness and cut, drink, or starve themselves into invisibility. Almost all will have their hearts broken by someone who really, really matters to them, and watch that same person choose another of dubious worth. Many will lose family members, exposing the world most demoralizing entity, death.
Life has enough foulness, loss, and perspective to ensure that kids know their place. I'm unsure how anyone could ever believe we need to augment that at times of celebration. To me, ensuring you get a petty jab in on the rich white boy of privilege does not justify the collateral damage of the other 99% who surround him.