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'You're not special' graduation speech: David McCullough spins it into a book

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Looking back at his now-famous speech, the English teacher is still in awe of the response: “I really had no indication immediately afterward that this was going to take off this way. It wasn’t until the following week when I opened my e-mail and saw the outpouring that I realized the impact.”

While McCullough told me that he “really didn’t see any negative reaction at the time and anything that came in was dwarfed by the support,” the speech did seem to spark both furor and kudos in commentary.

Love it or hate it, the speech was a watershed moment for many parents who paused to at least discuss the culture of praise some say has been created around kids, making them egocentric and lazy.

McCullough has the following advice on the art of commencement speechmaking: “It’s a different assignment, the commencement speech. Believe in the importance of what you tell them. Be sincere. Be genuine. Think about whom it is you’re speaking to and don’t go on too long.”

He adds: “Of course there are some conventions you have to stick with, but mainly the old fart stands up there and tells them what they need to know.”

What was his “convention” in the “You’re not special" speech that was so unconventional? “I went with the convention of giving advice,” McCullough says.

On that score the speaker did not skimp on tough love. Much of the speech bears repeating.

McCullough told the graduating class of 2012, in part:

“Contrary to what your U9 [under 9] 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. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you, and encouraged you again.  You've been nudged, cajoled, wheedled, and implored. You've been feted and fawned over and called ‘sweetie pie.’ Yes, you have…. But do not get the idea you're anything special.  Because you're not.”

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