You Are (Not) Special

It is the season of commencement speeches again.  From high school auditoriums to college athletic fields, graduates are exhorted to “be all that you can be,” “let what you love be what you do,” “be somebody,” “serve somebody,” and, of course, “change the world.”

Last weekend, as I watched my own students march in their caps and gowns, I couldn’t help feeling a gnawing anxiety inside—the same kind of fluttering in the stomach I get when I wait for my own children to begin a performance after months of practice and preparation. Are they ready for the world? More importantly, is the world ready to help these young people grow and find something worth giving about themselves?

My mind kept drifting to an unusually stirring (and loving) commencement speech in 2012.

“You are not special; you are not exceptional,” the English teacher David McCullough Jr. proclaimed to his graduating students. “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 are nothing special.”

How odd it is to both admire this speech and love its named antithesis, Fred Rogers, who ended each episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” by saying to millions of children, “You have made this day a special day, for just being you.”

Yet considering that both Fred Rogers and David McCullough must have shared a great sense of affection, care, and responsibility for the young (and younger) audience that was listening, their deeper messages are more resonant with one another than the opposing sound bites.

What McCullough chastised was the pursuit of learning and extracurricular activities for external distinctions of praise, trophies, grades, and points in college applications. Instead, he advocated, “If you’ve learned anything in your years here I hope it’s that education should be for, rather than material advantage, the exhilaration for learning. … I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance.”

It’s not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It’s the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our very being is good stuff.” – Fred Rogers

Fred adopted a similar “learning for its own sake” perspective from his mentor, the child psychologist Margaret McFarland.  She often brought artists into the kindergarten where Fred was studying child development to show love for the art itself.  Fred described the visit of a sculptor: “He didn’t teach about clay, he just loved it in that place where the children could watch. And little by little, the children themselves began to love their clay … all because they caught the enthusiasm of someone who loved what he did right in front of them.”  In numerous “Neighborhood” episodes, Fred took his young viewers to visit with both ordinary and famous artists to show and tell how each of them loved, practiced, persevered, and grew in their craft, paying little attention to their fame or popular recognition.

To Fred, there was perhaps no challenge in the modern world so threatening to children than the competitive culture of materialism and consumerism. Such a culture dictates that “being special” requires a person to possess what others do not, be it material things or social status. In that world and by that standard, McCullough was right in saying, “If every one is special, then no one is.” Fred wanted children to know that it is not the “fancy outsides,” but how they are “growing on the inside,” that is of real value.  McCullough cautioned his students against “the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction.” He defined the higher purpose of exercising free will, creativity, and independent thought “not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others.”

McCullough ended his speech by returning to the true meaning of “being special”: “The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone is.” The word “special” in Fred’s vocabulary is never meant as being special “over and above” your neighbor. Instead, it is deeply rooted in the appreciation of one’s self and one’s neighbor. Far from the “if every one is special, than no one is” imposition of our competitive world, Fred’s message (and I believe McCullough’s too) is this: Because everyone is special, then you are; and because you are special, every one is.  Both Fred and McCullough wanted their young audiences to recognize both sides of this truth and translate that understanding into their learning and service.

So as I hugged my seniors and posed for photos with their families, I came to better terms with my anxiety (the same I imagine many parents and teachers may be feeling during and after the graduation season). Whatever we have done as parents or teachers will not prepare the students for everything that awaits them in the days ahead; and the world, as it is, is hardly ready to help them learn, grow, and serve in ways we would hope. Yet, as Fred reminded students in his last commencement speech: “It’s not the honors and the prizes and the fancy outsides of life which ultimately nourish our souls. It’s the knowing that we can be trusted, that we never have to fear the truth, that the bedrock of our very being is good stuff.”

Best wishes for the good stuff inside each of our graduates, and in ourselves.

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