David McCullough Jr.’s commencement speech at Wellesley High School has gone viral, with Rush Limbaugh, a British tabloid, and seemingly every blog praising his chiding of graduates as “pampered,” likely to get divorced, and “not special.” The address wasn’t delivered out of spite; its broader point was a call for hard work and selflessness, and it was well received by the graduating class, who picked as their speaker McCullough, their favorite English teacher. But reading the nearly 2,000 YouTube comments on his remarks, one senses a bit of schadenfreude at “cosseted” teenagers finally hearing what the real world is like.
Yet the message doesn’t just resonate because he was dishing out some tough talk. Graduation speakers have tried to unsettle audiences before; Emory Law School’s speaker last year lectured graduates entering a tough job market to “get over it,” but her speech never made the NBC Nightly News. McCullough’s speech works because of his feel for pushing the boundaries and his credibility to do so. He’s been teaching for 26 years, many of them at Wellesley High, where he has urged pupils to “carpe the heck out of every diem.” (Roughly, “seize the day.”) And if anyone knows he’s “not special,” it’s McCullough, son of a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. McCullough, said by colleagues, students, and their parents to be one of Wellesley’s best teachers, was clearly speaking from a deeper place. His memorable address is a reminder that effective graduation speakers are those not only willing to be bold, but who also know how to connect to graduates.