“I feel like Dorothy Gale, plucked up by the tornado’’ in the Wizard of Oz, David McCullough Jr. says.
A couple of weeks ago, McCullough - son of the well-known author - was a fairly anonymous and enormously beloved English teacher at Wellesley High School. Now he’s a YouTube superstar, more popular than even roller-skating parrots.
His trip to Oz comes via a commencement speech he gave at Wellesley High on June 1. So far, the video of that address - now known as the “You Are Not Special’’ speech - has been viewed more than a million times. He has fielded calls from Australia, Germany, and Israel (“Nothing from Antarctica yet, but I’m optimistic’’). And, in what is probably a first for anything remotely connected with Wellesley, the speech is even admired by Rush Limbaugh, who recently made it the subject of one of his frothing, free-verse rants.
The part of the speech everybody has focused on “sounds like a slap-down of spoiled rich kids,’’ McCullough says.
“Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped,’’ he told graduating seniors. “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. . . . But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.’’
He continued: “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.’’
Nobody on the football field that afternoon was offended by these words. Students knew that McCullough was teasing them. And the speech was far more than that one passage: His point, beautifully rendered, was that students should forgo easy accolades in favor of genuine achievements, that they should “resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction. Be worthy of your advantages.’’
But it’s the slap-down part of the speech driving those YouTube clicks. Because it speaks to a popular view of kids today - that they’re coddled and overpraised, that a culture in which everybody gets a trophy spawns a generation of adults who think they deserve prizes for showing up. That has given rise to an industry of books and studies urging parents to dial back the hosannas, lest we be saddled with a population of lazy narcissists.
This is, of course, a largely middle-class phenomenon. The only reason McCullough can playfully take his students down a peg or two is that they’re up so many pegs to begin with.
“Had I been delivering the speech to a different group of kids, I would have said something else,’’ he says.
His is not the kind of commencement address one would ever hear at the Phoenix Charter Academy in Chelsea, for example. Few of the students there could be described as coddled. They’re kids other schools, and even some of their parents, have given up on - recent immigrants, teen parents, dropouts, troubled kids.
Beth Anderson, the school’s executive director, has seen scores of her students achieve superhuman feats, overcoming overwhelming disadvantages to graduate and go to colleges they thought they’d never see.
“For Wellesley, [McCullough] is right, and I thought his speech was pretty uplifting,’’ she says. “What occurred to me is how much our students have to battle . . . to become one of the many unspecial students who are graduating this year.’’
There’s only one word to describe those kids.
“I have to call them special,’’ says Mary Skipper, headmaster at TechBoston Academy in Dorchester, who has seen phenomenal success among her students despite the high decks stacked against them. “They are.’’
All but a few of this year’s 88 TechBoston graduates are going on to college, most to four-year schools. Many of them will be the first in their families to finish high school or attend college.
Anderson and Skipper want their graduates’ children to have all the advantages their parents didn’t - to one day find themselves listening to a commencement speaker ribbing them for being overpraised, saying, as McCullough did, “none of you is exceptional.’’
Meanwhile, the YouTube sensation’s phone keeps ringing, and his inbox is jammed.
“Another week or two of this and I’ll be ready to direct,’’ McCullough says. “I imagine I’ll be sitting courtside with Jack Nicholson very soon.’’