The Internet is not a meritocracy. It lifts a variety of people, things, and recorded moments into an orbit of fame, often with a seeming randomness. It’s an equal opportunity mouthpiece for both the wise and the inane, be it a TED talker expounding on “10 things you didn’t know about orgasm” or a dog stealing a cabbage from a kitchen counter.
Or, a modest commencement address by Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough Jr.
Intended for a small circle of graduates and their beloveds, McCullough’s words of wisdom to the Wellesley High School class of 2012 unexpectedly became blessed, or cursed, with Web stardom. Uploaded to YouTube, this plain video of a teacher speaking plainly has garnered 2.2 million hits, all without anyone having to sing or bust a move — two of the more usual paths to viral attention.
And now McCullough’s bubble-bursting reality sandwich of a speech has become a book, just in time for graduation season. With “You Are Not Special: And Other Encouragements,’’ McCullough takes the DNA of his 12-minute, 46-second talk — “You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless” — and cranks out a 10-chapter, 300-plus-page treatise of advice, scolding, and inspiration, all spun from the humble silk of that initial oration.
Addressed mostly to his adolescent students, “You Are Not Special” is about many things. How we’re raising teens. The rewards of hard work and responsibility. Grade inflation. Well-meaning but jerky parents living vicariously through their offspring’s performance. The “soccer/industrial complex.”
McCullough critiques the “perpetuation of privilege” created by frantic, well-heeled parents “swinging a machete like Balboa crossing the Isthmus, clearing a path for the little darling who’s following along behind.” He skewers his own peer group for “raising trained and highly focused specialists for whom narrow excellence is the dictum and other responsibilities or pleasures interferences.” These ultra-advantaged kids have become, he writes, “showpieces in an arms race to impress admissions officers.”
Each of McCullough’s chapters is focused around a general topic, but his essayistic treatment allows for ample meanderings. The son of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian David McCullough, he invokes his favorite authors — Shakespeare, Melville, Crane — amid litanies of evidence and cascades of comic examples, which spill like caldrons of hot oil upon all who might raise an objection.
But “You Are Not Special” is not all soapbox and diatribe. McCullough delicately and smartly straddles the dual role “of an expert, or a hypocrite, or both.” For one, he’s a parent of teenagers himself. Two, he’s a 26-year veteran of the high-school trenches, both exclusive private and wealthy suburban public.
He knows he’s part of the system against which he tilts. You know, the one that sends entitled kids to “build irrigation systems in Zimbabwe” and “fund-raise to end diabetes,” the one that creates “Stepfordian’’ college-bound gamers of the system all the way to the Ivy League. World-traveled by age 17 and schooled in Mandarin, these teens, he argues, can barely find their own selves on a map.
Naturally, McCullough mourns the good old, analog, “Be home by dinner” days, when kids were given the gift of unstructured time to explore their own passions without specialized equipment or test prep coaching. “None of us had cool stuff,” he remembers. “We didn’t care.”
But lest you think McCullough’s mode is all grumpy old man, it’s not. He wisely settles, mostly, on a more hopeful, we’re-all-in-this together tenor that eschews condescension.
My only quibble: In a couple chapters, he strays from his wheelhouse, making unsupported or obvious claims about gender, race, and the college admissions process. Teacher, where are your footnotes?
In the end, McCullough’s occasionally cranky, mellifluously written, gantlet-throwing tome is a success. May its salvos ring from Cambridge and Arlington to the hinterlands of Wellesley, Weston, and Way-wayland. “You Are Not Special’’ is also big-hearted — and clearly forged in a hearth of caring, doubt, and fear. Aphorisms could be lifted from every page and blossom into memes. With your help, they could become Internet stars of their own.