It’s graduation time! It’s also time for the myriad end-of-year hoopla that accompanies just about every activity children do. In point of fact, I just returned, about a half-hour ago, from Daniel’s school for the fourth-grade band and orchestra concert. He’s with the band (I love saying that!). He’s no virtuoso — geez, the kid only started “playing” clarinet last October! — but he’s proud of “making” band. With my idea of this post already circulating in my head — that graduation ceremonies, from preschool on up, possibly put too much emphasis on how exceptional the graduates are — I was pleased to hear the introduction to the concert by the school principal: he didn’t call them exceptional. He said he was proud of how hard they’d worked. (Me, too!).
This year, we have no graduation ceremonies on the docket. But we’ve been there, already: They wore mortarboards and tiny gowns for graduation from daycare, and from preschool.
Here’s Daniel, with James and me, at his preschool graduation in June, 2007:
The “you’re so special!” events aren’t just confined to leaving one school and moving on to another. My boys, like many, also get soccer trophies, twice a year. And little certificates that say “Good singing!” in music class. They get a certificate each year after their piano recital,with a photo of each of them at the Steinway grand they get to play in the recital space (a far cry from our third-hand tinny upright!). James even has, taped to his door, a certificate congratulating him on the “great job!” he did on his book report earlier this year.
He did do a great job, it’s true. Both my children are indeed special.
Or so I believe. But I’m careful to tell them that piano requires hard work before you’re granted the certificate, and that soccer is about teamwork and decidedly non-glorious practices along with thrilling games, and that they should be proud more of the completed book report than of the sign on the door with the little heart next to the teacher’s signature.
Because they’re all special. But they’re also all the same. That was the message imparted to the 2012 graduates of Wellesley High School in Massachusetts last week, in a wonderful commencement speech made by a teacher named David McCullough. It was all about how these kids are not special, how they are one of many, which makes them ordinary rather than exceptional.
Here’s what he said, in part:
You are not special. You are not exceptional.
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.
Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. Yes, you have. And, certainly, we’ve been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your science fairs.
McCullough goes on to caution that too many accolades put the focus on what you get from what you do. Americans, he tells the graduates, have come to view rewards and praise as the point rather than the result. Which means that,
…we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole. No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it…
I am not saying that I wish my sons didn’t get certificates and trophies. I’m not sure it’s practical or would have the right outcome if we suddenly said, “you only get soccer/dance/piano trophies if you do really really well! Sorry, kid who couldn’t master the slide tackle or the grand jete!”
But I do wish we could find a way to tell them, as McCullough so eloquently told those high school seniors, that while they are indeed special and the most beautiful and perfect beings we’ve ever seen, they are only one of many, many perfect and beautiful centers of the universe. That if they use their gifts for the world, rather than for themselves, to pursue their passions for passion’s sake, they get so much more than trophies and certificates and notches on the college application.
From McCullough’s conclusion:
Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.
Ordinary, not exceptional. What do you think?