With three memorable words — “you’re not special” — David McCullough Jr. went from a popular English teacher at Wellesley High School to an Internet sensation and among last spring’s most memorable commencement speakers.
But as high school seniors, their parents, and teachers prepare for another round of “Pomp and Circumstance,’’ McCullough will be sitting it out.
He has no plans to speak at any graduations this year, and has declined almost every offer to talk to civic groups.
McCullough’s speech, which railed against the coddling of children and rallied Wellesley High’s graduating seniors to seize life, read, and live selflessly, went viral last June. It also earned him a book contract.
And for the past year, while on sabbatical from his high school job, McCullough has been writing what he describes as a “sermonizing memoir” about the purposes of education, and his experiences as a father and teacher.
He has spent much of his time huddled in his Sudbury home writing, McCullough said last week over the phone.
He finished his manuscript in March and is planning to work through the editing this summer. He will return to teaching at Wellesley High in the fall.
‘I remain stunned by it. I got swept up in the tornado.’
“It’s been energizing and therapeutic,” McCullough said of the writing experience. “I suddenly empathize with kids having a mountain of homework.”
McCullough, 54, said this is the first time he has written a book since his attempts after college to pen a novel. His father is the Pulitzer Prize-winning author and historian David McCullough.
Even now, months after the buzz about his speech has quieted down, McCullough still struggles to fully explain why it garnered such attention. The YouTube video of McCullough’s speech has received 1.9 million views, Psychology Today offered an online analysis of six lessons from the speech, and Rush Limbaugh lauded the address on his radio show.
“I remain stunned by it,” McCullough said. “I got swept up in the tornado.”
In the address on a sunny June day, McCullough told the several hundred Wellesley seniors, “You are not special. You are not exceptional.
“Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. 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.”
Wellesley High principal Andrew Keough has some theories about why the speech clicked for so many. Commencement addresses typically focus on singing the praises of the graduates, their accomplishments, and their potential.
McCullough flipped that formula in a funny and blunt way, Keough said.
“He speaks about something we’re all concerned about, the coddling of kids,” Keough said, and in the process told the graduates to be realistic about what they will find in the world.
This year, Wellesley’s seniors have picked English teacher Alan Brazier as their commencement speaker. Keough was initially concerned about providing the media too much information about this year’s speaker, and placing unfair expectations on Brazier after McCullough’s experience.
But Keough said the school’s commencement addresses are frequently memorable.
“I actually think we have some really great speeches here from the heart,” he said. “We really try to speak to our kids and send them off with some good advice. . . They’re always good here. And nobody remembers mine.”
As for McCullough, he is looking forward to returning to the classroom. His book is scheduled to be released sometime after Christmas.
The book’s working title stems from three words in his speech last spring that didn’t get much attention: “The Chief Element.”
“If you’ve learned anything in your years here, I hope it’s that education should be for — rather than material advantage — the exhilaration of learning,” McCullough said in that memorable speech. “You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness.”