You are not a beautiful or unique snowflake, you are the same organic decaying matter as everything else. – Tyler Durden, Fight Club
My sense of the rustling encroachment of my mortality has been a little keener over the past couple of weeks. Personally, I’ve been hampered by a torn muscle in my lower back, which had making getting out of chairs treacherous, has taken me offline for tennis, and reduced me to a regimen of walking and stretching. This has made me feel older than I usually feel. The other thing that’s made me feel older is not physical, but communal. All over my feeds are pictures of my friends’ kids in graduation ceremonies – elementary school, high school, and good lord, even college.
This, of course, makes me harken back to my own commencement ceremonies. Perhaps it should also make me feel old that I cannot recall whether we had a guest speaker in high school. I don’t think we did. I remember getting a nod for NAS and maybe for Most Likely to Listen to Too Much Alan Parsons. Maybe that last part I made up.
In college, our commencement speaker was the Honorable Joseph Biden, then a Senator from Delaware. It was 1987, and Biden was just beginning his quest for the Democratic Presidential nomination. This was before the whole brain aneurysm thing. What I can recall was that it was about a bazillion degrees that afternoon and my girlfriend coyly mentioning that she only had underwear on under her robe.
In grad school, I went back to UNC six months after I had actually defended to receive my diploma and so going back for commencement was like a mini-reunion. It was awesome. Except that the speaker was Ted Turner, who was decidedly not awesome.
So there you go… 0-for-3 in the commencement speaker memorability department. Maybe this was one of the reasons that a recent commencement address by David McCullough, a teacher at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts, made my ears perk up. You see, after starting with some mildly funny remarks about commencements, McCullough channeled his inner-Durden and attempted to give students a little bit of reality:
“… here we are on a literal level playing field. That matters. That says something. And your ceremonial costume… shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all. Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same. And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same.
All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special.
You are not special. You are not exceptional.”
The laughs sort of die off as he says this, and he establishes his thesis that if everyone is special then no one is. That if everyone gets a trophy then trophies have no value. He then squarely skewers the helicopter parents in the crowd:
“… 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…
…But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.”
And since he was on a roll, he takes on the grade-inflated society we’ve created not just in academic classrooms, but everywhere it seems.
“…we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point — and 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… 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… Now it’s “So what does this get me?” As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans. It’s an epidemic — and in its way, not even dear old Wellesley High is immune… where good is no longer good enough, where a B is the new C, and the midlevel curriculum is called Advanced College Placement.”
He does go on to finish with some more uplifting words that essentially call on the students to leave the narcissistic crap behind and do something of value and meaning. Something of true achievement. See the whole video here.
Maybe it came decades too late – though it’s a message that probably adults should hear too – but I think I finally heard a commencement address worth remembering. I’m just glad I didn’t have to sit in a crappy folding chair to hear it. I don’t think my back could have taken it.