The Wellesley High School teacher who famously told the class of 2012 that they were not special in his commencement speech has landed a book deal with the Ecco imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
“It’s going to be on a subject about which, I believe, I have a certain expertise,” said David McCullough Jr. “And that is — are you ready? — high school.”
McCullough caused an international sensation with his speech June 1, when he told Wellesley High graduates: “You are not special. You are not exceptional.
“Contrary to what your U9 soccer trophy suggests, your glowing seventh-grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers, and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you . . . you’re nothing special.”
His point, of course, was a little more philosophical than that sound-bite would suggest, but it was the sound-bite that hit the airwaves first.
News organizations from all over picked up the story, from the Los Angeles Times to the British tabloid Daily Mail, which ran with the headline: “ ‘You’re NOT special’: Teacher rants at ‘pampered, cosseted, and doted upon’ students in bizarre graduation speech.’ ”
The speech even inspired its own video contest, organized by the Wellesley Media Corporation, where entrants competed for a “one-of-a-kind trophy” by making videos about what made them special.
But what McCullough was really telling the graduates in his speech was that happiness is not about the prizes you win, but the verve and passion with which you live.
“Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion — and those who will follow them,” McCullough said at the end of his speech. “And then you, too, will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special, because everyone is.”
The book, he said, will expand on the themes in his speech. It will explore the full high school experience. It will be, he hopes, a guide for both teenagers and for grownups.
“I think people are discontent with what’s happening in our schools,” he said. “Our kids are underperforming. They’re emerging from high school underprepared. And we’re doing the easy thing, which is lowering our standards, rather than reforming our methods.
“And I think we need to put more faith in the kids, to give them more room to fail, to encourage them to experiment more than they have,” McCullough said. “There’s so much pressure on kids these days to perform. To achieve accolades, they’re taking the careful route. They’re afraid to fail. They’re afraid even to stumble. . . . That inhibits their education.”
When his commencement speech, which has now picked up nearly 1.7 million views on YouTube, first attracted wider notice, McCullough said, he felt as if he had been swept off to Oz in a tornado.
“It still feels that way,” he said.
As he sifted through about 850 e-mails he received as his speech went viral, McCullough said he found inquiries from eight or nine agents and three or four publishers. With his agent’s coaching, he wrote a proposal, which she shopped around.
Ecco won the rights to publish the book in an auction, according to an Ecco statement.
“I couldn’t be more excited about publishing David McCullough’s book, which will evolve from his remarkable commencement speech,” said Daniel Halpern, of Ecco. “As the father of a graduating high schooler, I was moved and enlightened by the issues he raises and the good sense with which he approaches them. The general response to that speech has been overwhelming, more than a million and a half views on YouTube! Clearly the nerve he’s hit is not localized, but is a message for us all.”
The book is tentatively scheduled for publication in fall 2013, according to Ecco.
McCullough has already started writing. He has taken a leave of absence from Wellesley High School.
While he will miss teaching, the opportunity to write a book was one he could not pass up, he said. “At my late stage – I’m 53 — you don’t expect these things to happen.”Evan Allen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.