Who do you think you are?

By Bill Petzold

An English teacher at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts recently took a unique, if blunt, approach to high school commencement speaking.
Instead of the typical “we’re so proud of you, you’re so talented and the world’s your oyster” speech, David McCullough Jr.’s message sounded more like: “Welcome to the real world.”
Excerpts from McCullough’s address:
“You are not special. You are not exceptional. … You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. … But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.”
And the kicker:
“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.”
Hard to argue with the math.
Still, McCullough’s words bring to mind a debate I’ve had with several people. Is it better to build a kid up and encourage him if it means setting him up for disappointment later in life, or is it preferable to be tough and honest with a kid, even if it means dashing his hopes of one day being President of the United States?
Sometimes when I was having a bad day at work and hated the world I’d think, Sheesh, people spend your entire childhood building you up to think you’re somebody special, and then they spend the next 40 years beating it into your head that you’re not.
Honestly, I don’t remember the speeches at either my high school or college graduation commencements. I do remember leaving Vassar High for the final time as a student thinking that I was destined to be a great writer (I’d settle for “not bad” at this point), a great musician (I have a steady gig at least) and the most famous person to ever come out of Vassar, Michigan (Sgt. Travis Mills has my vote for that title, and well-deserved).
I studied English and art in college, and realized I pretty much already had the tools I needed to write or draw. There wasn’t any big secret, just a lot of hard work that, once finished, allowed you to add an extra line to your résumé. Sure, skills were honed working on more advanced projects, but it felt like a natural progression as a writer and artist.
Along the way, I realized that having big dreams wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. I drew a lot of strength and drive from my determination to show the world what I was capable of doing. But I also compromised; my so-called dreams morphed into attainable goals, and one after another I met them.
I appreciate the earnestness of McCullough’s address, but it seems a tad harsh for a day when families are celebrating their childrens’ accomplishments.
If I were to address the class of 2012, I would have three simple pieces of advice for them:
1) Yes, you are not special, but nobody knows that until you prove it to them.
2) No matter who you live with, you always have to live with yourself so be true to your best interests always.
And 3), don’t let the fear of failure hold you back. As Wayne Gretzky said, you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take.

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