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"You Are Not Special..."

A high school teacher tells graduating students "you are not special" at what should be an unforgettable occasion in honor of the students, but the latest buzz has been about him.

There has been much blog talk lately about a high school teacher’s commencement speech posted in the Boston Herald where the teacher told high school graduates “you are not special.”

While I do believe David McCollough Jr., an English teacher at Wellesley High School in Wellesley, Massachusetts, meant well, I feel he made a much too ambiguously bold speech to high school students at such a ceremonious occasion, leaving a bunch of anxious teenage children bamboozled at a moment that should have been quite joyous for them.

Did McCullough cross the line or is he right? Are these students not special? Tell us what you think in the comments section below.

At a quick glance, Mr. McCollough told the students that graduating does not make them special, and he went into details presenting figures that show how millions of students graduate from different schools across the country as evidence to prove to the students just how special they are not. He went on to scolding parents for collecting awards for their children's accomplishments and spoke about how students were “pampered... and called sweetie pie." He even voiced what I see as a contradiction, when he tells the students they should “do whatever (they) do for no reason other than (they) love it and believe in its importance." To me that’s actually what makes someone special, being an individual.

His statement basically says that being your own individual self is good, which in a dictionary, is defined as being special. Knowing that being you is being special, and it's okay is the very thing that encourages students to be creative, to not be afraid to do the opposite of the norm, to go those places no man has gone before. Feeling special allows students to dream those beautiful visions of colorful sparkles, rainbows, shooting stars, and the unthinkable that they manage to pencil in on art paper.

There are very few high schools with a 100 percent graduation rate. Graduating from anywhere should make anyone feel special. Graduating does not earn one a team trophy. It is an individual accomplishment, a special accomplishment. Every one of us is special in our own individual way. What one may personally achieve, someone else may not. What someone else may specially achieve another may not possibly fathom. 

Some students graduate as the first in their families, and they may feel special. No one can dictate what should make someone special in life. However, it was said that many attendees applauded Mr. McCollough’s speech, but I couldn’t help but be in the seat of one of the students who almost felt good about herself, while the graduating student’s moment becomes recognition for Mr. McCollough and his grandiloquent commencement speech which ironically speaks about not being seen from the mountain. And I could sense the other graduates filled with anxiety and thinking about what they might do after the graduation as their eyes roam the room, now they vaguely see glimpses of Mr. McCollough as he speaks, and can only recall his initial words. "You are not special."

I tell all my students they are special and that being special is what makes them who they are. No two people are created with the same background, situations, and experiences that help mold them into their individual being. There are no two exact people on this planet. None of us have the answers to life. If feeling special is what brings out the best in us, then so let it be. If there was a survey done on prisoners, I’ll bet that at least 90 percent of them would say they never heard they were special, maybe until they received interventions while incarcerated.

Students don’t need teachers to lower their self-esteem; society will do its best at it. The actual challenge for students will be being that special person they were meant to be despite distractions of the world. As a teacher, I will tell my students to climb the mountain if they so desire, because it takes a special person to do it, to enjoy the thrill of the climb as they see the world, but to be sure they let the world see them, so others believe that they can do it too, to win because it takes special effort and to spread to others their triumphing testimony to help them achieve their extraordinary goals.

I tell my own children that they are special to me, and I would never announce publically to a group of students, whose only opportunity to feel special may be during their high school graduation, that they "are not special". 

The fact of the matter is that it is natural for all of us to want to feel special. People plague themselves with material things as attempts to feel special, people go to high levels to seek attention to fill that void of not feeling special, some through how they treat others, how they dress, how they make up themselves, and sometimes even their life styles. Children act out because they want to feel special. People even commit crimes to be seen on TV, which I must add is so very sad, yet a perfect example of how deeply people yearn to stand out from the rest.

For I understand the numerous amounts of disadvantages students of different backgrounds face, whether these range from nuisances that affect educational abilities, poor parental care which comes from various household incomes, poverty, personal struggles, and peer pressures. We don’t know what goes on inside the homes or inside the students. Maybe Mr. McCollough doesn't realize that American college students are already on high with rates of depression and anxiety. How special is that?

If that one day comes where any child gets to smile, and feel that he or she is someone special during any occasion, I don’t want to be the one to steal that joy. Telling a child “you are not special because everyone is” most likely will not resonate the way it might have been meant to. With children, we have to be careful. Besides, we adults are very familiar with those lessons in life we had to learn through experience, those lessons that could have been preached but never taught to us.

Telling students “they are not special” is far from fixing America’s problems. If there is one thing I needed to say about being special to graduating high school students during such a momentous moment, it would be, “you are special, but being special doesn’t mean you are better… it means you are being the best YOU, you can be regardless."  I’m sure they could understand and appreciate that.

God gifted us all in a special way (1 Corinthians 12).

Msgoff June 18, 2012 at 03:14 AM
Tammy, one of my daughters was/is a very high achiever. I used to wonder what it would be like for her, and if she would be able to handle it, once she entered the "real (adult) world," and was not this terrific top-of-her-class high school student, Dean's List college student, super at her internship during college, and always accolades. I used to say that she had the "Midas touch." I would occasionally speak about the "real world" with her. I'm here to tell you that it has not been easy for her. Unfortunately, in the real world there are people who are on a mission to make sure you know that you are not special, or "all that." This can be very perplexing and destructive if a young person does not have a support system to work through this. I like how you stated it "The world will not love you the way your special relationships will."
Joshua Rodgers June 18, 2012 at 12:14 PM
I recently graduated high school. One year ago to be exact. I am attending college now and working part time. I had many teachers who tried and did make students feel special. They would say nice things or write nice comments on our papers or joke around with us or whatever. And while those teachers were usually the most popular, they weren't the teachers that left the biggest impression on me. Instead, I keep finding myself remembering and appreciating the teachers who didn't treat me special. I don't mean they weren't nice to me, i mean they treated me with respect, but not like a little kid, you know? They simply expected me to do my work. Now that I'm in college and working, I realize they were the one who best prepared me for my life now. One of these teachers used to always say, "I know your parents tell you that your special, but remember there's a million people just like you." I used to think he was kind of mean for saying that, but now I finally get it. I also get more of his sarcasm now. When we were in his class a bunch of past students would always come and visit him, and we would wondery why?!?! We thought he was kind of mean, but as I get older it makes sense to me. I think part of the reason I didn't get him was because he didn't treat us like the center of the universe like so many other teachers and adults did. I guess Im trying to say that as I look back the adults who didn't treat me like I was special may have helped me the most.
christian June 18, 2012 at 07:32 PM
Feeling special never made me feel like a little kid joe and im a grown man. Not sure what school you went to Joe but at the schools I visit I see it kinda hard for a teacher to treat a class of looks like over twenty five kids like they r the center of the universe especially with all the parent issues and behavior problems I always see. I dont know I always thought my teachers put smiling faces on my paper to say I did a good job and comments to communicate with me it didnt make me think I was special. Sometimes I put comments on feedback notes to encourage I hope they dont think im trying to say they are more important than others but I know how to be serious too.I remember my favorite teacher she was tough but she made us laugh all the time. She was pretty cool. She wasnt easy on us but she was a good fair hI person and taught us not to settle for less because she never excepted the less from us. She would discipline us but she could also be very nice and caring she made me feel special because she would tutor me and other kids after school to help push us along.she really showed us that she cared I'll never forget she even bought one guy a trumpet so he could play in the band. She would have never told us we weren't special because she would have known that many of us would have missed the message. I see what the guy was sayingsting man but he should have picked some other words th
christian June 18, 2012 at 07:36 PM
you are not special just want digest for me not when you talking to a group of teenagers when I was finishing school I needed all the positive words I could get..don't scare me..I saw that more as talking down than up. I get the part with him trying to prepare them for the workforce and all but the reality is from what I always see adults are even complaining about the work force being a mess. They are always complaining about bosses treating their buddies special with better pay and postions laying people off just because they thought about it some feeling like they are worked to death.so many adults themselves are quitting these jobs or trying to retire themselves. Idon't think nobody should aim during a graduation to get students ready for the workforce by telling they aren't special if u ask me more people need to take a stand against the selfserving companies. My aunt has been working at Walmart for 13 years on third shift and makes 11 dollars an hour.from what I can see from inside this box were in it's being special to others and special relationships that really helps you in this world
You are absolutely right, exactly my feelings, Christian,..just know that yours and my "thinking outside the box" abilities aren't common sense.......

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