If you remember your high school or college graduation ceremony (I'm not interested in knowing you're too young to have graduated from either or both yet), do you remember the commencement speaker? Do you remember what they said?
All I remember about high school graduation is that we in chamber choir sang I Sing the Body Electric, and after having sang it at others' graduations, it was amazing to sing it at my own, alongside some of my close friends. My college graduation was a crazy weekend (I actually had a kidney stone), and instead of graduating with all of GW, we graduated by college, so the College of Arts and Sciences had former New York Congressman Stephen Solarz as our speaker. (Yawn.) Solarz lost his bid for re-election the next year, aided by the fact he was named in the Congressional check kiting scandal.
Wellesley High School in the Boston area had one of their teachers, David McCullough, Jr., deliver a commencement speech. But instead of delivering the usual platitudes, what he said was more honest but perhaps just as inspiring, telling students "you're not special."
"Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That's 37,000 valedictorians...37,000 class presidents...92,000 harmonizing altos...340,000 swaggering jocks...2,185,967 pairs of Uggs," he said. "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."
McCullough told students, "You've been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble wrapped ... feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie." He added, "You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless....We have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement."
He did push students to recognize real achievement: "The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life is an achievement," and he encouraged graduates "to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance." Feedback to his speech from students and parents has been tremendously positive. It's nice to hear some honesty, don't you think?