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We're not special

 
Last week, the internet community was abuzz with the sound bites of a speech delivered to an unsuspecting crowd of graduation attendees.
While over an estimated 37,000 high school commencement ceremonies are expected to take place this year, it was obvious that this one Massachusetts English teacher must have done something quite remarkable to distinguish his speech from the rest and to gain nationwide attention.
Whereas most speakers would choose to highlight the outstanding achievements of the graduating class, doting on a few exceptional students and dropping the name of a few Ivy League schools that had accepted their students, David McCullough did something rather… unconventional.
He told the students that they were nothing special.
When I first saw the article with a link to his speech posted on my friend’s Facebook wall with the headline: “Commencement speaker blasts students”, I was expecting to find some sensationalized tale of a speechmaker-gone-crazy. I could see the scene clearly: the under-paid, over-stressed teacher snapping at the podium, screaming at students, cursing at principles and district officials, perhaps even flipping a chair or two as the rent-a-cops forcibly remove him from the stage.
Perhaps that was a bit dramatic of an interpretation to get from a four-word title, but it was honestly the first thing that came to mind. Of course, David McCullough did nothing of the sort. Instead, he drew attention to a phenomena that I think we are afraid to discuss today:
“You see, if everyone is special, then no one is,” He said. “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.”
And at the university level, we are not immune from this phenomena. It seems that everywhere you turn, there is a new honors society to join, another application to turn in. More padding to add to your resume. 
It seems that many of us get so caught up in the race to be the best that we overextend ourselves to the point that our efforts no longer matter. Or we find ourselves with empty awards and meaningless tokens.
But if this is what we are doing…at the end of the day, what have we really accomplished? 
Nothing.
As McCullough emphasizes again and again in his speech, if we only seek to accomplish goals for our own gain and our own glory, without any heart or drive, then our effort is meaningless.
He says, “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.”
So instead of choosing an organization, an honors society, a major or a career because it sounds impressive, because it will bring you prestige or recognition, do it because you care.
Which brings me to my favorite line of his entire speech: “Do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance.”
I think that far too few of us have made this a goal in life. This English teacher from Massachusetts is right: we’re not special, precisely because each and every one of us is.
 
Lexi Thoman is a senior international studies and Spanish double-major from St. Louis, Mo.