Praise for the Unexceptional

I had come to expect any conversation with my Parisian host family to concern either 1) the saga of the Canadian Psycho or 2) their cat. So I was surprised when one night in June, they asked me about a commencement address at an American high school. Mr. David McCullough, Jr. had delivered a speech entitled “You are not special” to Wellesley High’s graduating class of 2012. I wasn’t too shocked by the content of the speech, only that I was related to the speaker.

My uncle, an English teacher at Wellesley High for 26 years, had made a speech reminding the graduates that despite their “u9 soccer trophy” and “every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur,” they were unexceptional.

He said, “You see, if everyone is special, then no one is.”

While I was on another continent, Uncle Davey had become a viral superstar. I felt pretty damn special. News sources from around the globe had picked up on his speech. The story in a British tabloid, The Daily Mail, was headlined, “You’re NOT special’: Teacher rants at ‘pampered, cosseted and doted upon’ students in bizarre graduation speech.”

But of course, he was not bashing his students. Just the opposite. He expects his students to possess capabilities greater than those represented on their trophy shelves of shallow accolades. He advised them, “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.” In a time when our generation of millennials is constantly analyzed for all of our complexes, Davey got it right.

When I posted a link to the Youtube video to my Facebook, I wrote, “we all need to hear this a little bit more. congratulations uncle davey!”

I was happy that a global audience heard what my uncle had been saying for years. I was also happy when people liked or commented on my wall post. That is, until my little brother commented, “maybe some people more than others … cough cough cough cough … Caroline.”

Ever since Handsome Dan popped up on my screen in that thrilling and confusing moment in April of 2010, Will has been fond of referring to me as “Eli Bulldog Princess.” He and my younger sister think that I get special treatment because I got into a good school. They think I adore having to politely talk about school endlessly with our relatives, while they sit by quietly. All they hear me saying to aunts and grandparents is “what great opportunities I have,” how “lucky I am.”

Will is 17 years old, 6 foot 3 with a beard, and self-described as “omni-happy.” Beyond his snide remarks about my school and my unsolicited comments on his relationship with his girlfriend, we get along perfectly. What he fails to understand is that since coming to Yale, I’ve begun to feel pretty unaccomplished. Constant exposure to the best and the brightest only reinforces what I could be.

But this summer, Will showed me something I hadn’t seen at school. When I came home from France, I went to live with him in a small cabin on an island where we both had jobs. I sat in an air-conditioned office while he repaired wooden hulls at the boat yard next door.

After nine hard hours working in the sun, he would come down the dirt road, covered in boat paint, singing some stupid country song. He would be tired, but he’d ask me to go fishing with him. He wanted to catch dinner.

William will graduate this year. He doesn’t know what he’s going to do afterward. But who does, really? He is a wonderful human being, but he is not special. I hope there are plenty of others just like him.

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