‘Special’ kids

Should We Stop Telling Our Kids That They’re Special? asks Erika Christakis, a Harvard staffer, in Time.  Before the everyone’s-special era, “there was a tendency to view children not as unique individuals but as a monolithic category of people to be managed, controlled, and often ignored,” she writes. Many kids were “abandoned, emotionally and academically.”

Take learning disabilities. Before each child became “special,” a child with a learning disability could face a decade or more of agony and a fast track to the bottom rung of the socioeconomic ladder. But changes in pedagogy that support atypical learning styles and abilities have opened up opportunities for millions of kids whose failures would have carried a costly public price tag. That’s easy to forget when people decry the coddling-and-cosseting trend.

Similarly, girls, children of color, gay teens, children with physical disabilities, even kids with allergies or unique religious and cultural attributes have all benefited from the chance to feel “special” and as worthy as any child of protection and respect.

I don’t know. As a baby boomer, I thought my parents believed I was special just for being me. I had to prove myself to the rest of the world. On the other hand, schools — and the culture at large — is much more supportive of kids who are different in a variety of ways.

Graduates, ‘you are not special’

“You are not special,” English teacher David McCullough Jr. told graduates of Wellesley High School in a commencement speech that’s gone viral on YouTube.

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.

Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped.

. . . But do not get the idea you’re anything special.  Because you’re not.

. . . your planet, I’ll remind you, is not the center of its solar system, your solar system is not the center of its galaxy, your galaxy is not the center of the universe.  In fact, astrophysicists assure us the universe has no center; therefore, you cannot be it.

. . . You see, if everyone is special, then no one is.  If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless.  In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another–which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.  We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole.  No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it…  Now it’s “So what does this get me?”  As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans.

It’s an epidemic — and in its way, not even dear old Wellesley High is immune… one of the best of the 37,000 (high schools) nationwide, Wellesley High School… where good is no longer good enough, where a B is the new C, and the midlevel curriculum is called Advanced College Placement.

. . . 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.  You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness.  (Second is ice cream…  just an fyi)  I also hope you’ve learned enough to recognize how little you know… how little you know now… at the moment… for today is just the beginning.  It’s where you go from here that matters.

McCullough concludes by urging graduates to “be worthy of your advantages” and “read all the time.”

Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it.  Dream big.  Work hard.  Think for yourself.  Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might. 

The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.

Because everyone is.

Here’s the video. He gets warmed up about three minutes in.