Author’s 2020 update:
To the class of 2020: of course you are special.
For you and your parents, graduation is an event—and it’s an important one.
Typically, graduates and their families remember the event as an ending of their formal school years. It is also the threshold of young adulthood. That is why we call the graduation ceremony “commencement;” as you complete high school, your life begins in a new way.
For those of us who teach you, graduation is a season almost like the holidays.
As much as we think of you as individuals, we also think of you as cohorts, and your class moves through the grades with its own particular attitude or common spirit. When you visit the school in the years after your graduation, we employ various phrases to recall your class, like “That was the year that…” We remember how our teams did that year, or what the musical was that year. And the seasons layer one on top of the other, creating so many good memories.
Some of you walk across that stage with your hands full of awards and scholarships along with your diplomas. Your robes billow behind you as you descend the stairs with your bounty. We celebrate this with you.
For others, just achieving that diploma is one of your first victories after wrestling so many challenges that life presented to you. Know that we see that too.
Teaching is hard work, but it is rewarding. At our school—and probably at most—the teachers go out after the graduation ceremony to say one last goodbye to each other before we leave for the summer. We say cliché things like, “This is why we do this,” and our hearts are full.
One of the most emotionally packed moments as a teacher was when I realized that I had seen my first cohort all the way from grade 9 to grade 12. What seems forever as a high school student seems to take less and less time as an adult. (Most adults will say that to you.) And so we ask you cliché questions like, “Where did the time go?”
One graduation season, way back in 2012, I wrote this letter to my students in response to David McCullough’s graduation speech. He got a lot of attention telling students that they were not special. I disagreed and I wrote a letter to my students.
I read it to the class of 2012 – and to all graduating classes since. While our current context is so different from 2012, I think it still applies.
I wrote this letter to my students in response to David McCullough’s graduation speech.
Soon you will be graduates. As I have mentioned to you in class, obtaining your high school diploma is an achievement that cannot be taken from you. On this, and some other points, I do concur with David McCullough, Jr., who recently delivered a speech to his students entitled, “You’re not special”—but the title of his speech troubles me.
Of course you are special. It is because you are special that you should take up the challenge to seek purpose and meaning in life. Let’s not limit our thinking with the application of binary opposition. Do not accept the “me versus them,” paradigm as Mr. McCullough seems to have done. He argues “if everyone is special, then no one is.” Just being human makes you special.
Remember, even in the depth of despair, Hamlet acknowledges,”What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how/infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and/admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like/ a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet/ to me, what is this quintessence of dust?” ( William Shakespeare)
Carl Sagan—and Joni Mitchell—tell us that “this quintessence of dust,” is, in fact, star dust. Sagan states that, “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars. We are made of starstuff.”
No, you are not the center of the universe, but the elements that allow your physical experience of the world existed when the universe was “born.” You are woven into the fabric of the universe in ways in which we are only beginning to grasp. The universe, of which you are part, is also special.
Stephen Hawking tells us that, “The odds against a universe like ours emerging out of something like a big bang are enormous…” Parallel to the odds against our universe existing is the unlikelihood of human conception. Conception is often called a miracle because, “in fact, the odds are stacked against fertilization.” Women release one egg per month. Men release from 100 million to 300 million sperm per emission. Only one of those millions of sperm will fertilize the egg if the egg happens to have been released when the potential parents…unite.
In short, whether it is by chance or by design, the fact that the universe came into existence at all—in addition to the fact you made it here at all—draws us (or at least me) to the conclusion that we are here under extraordinary circumstances. That is special, and so are you. But you must share this status.
Whether you were born in, brought to –or even fled to—Canada, you enjoy privileges and rights that are unimaginable to your peers in age in most parts of the world. Mr. Rogers—maligned by McCullough—would tell you that no matter the geographical divide between you and them, those fellow inhabitants of the planet are your neighbors . He would invite you—in a very sweet voice—to treat them as you, yourselves, wish to be treated.
So many of you have shared the message of Christopher McCandless, “Happiness is only real when shared,” and about that I am certain that Mr. McCullough does not disagree. He states that “selflessness is the best thing that you can do for yourself.”
Long, long before Mr. McCullough and I began to teach, Lao Tzu taught that “The reason why the universe is eternal is that it does not live for itself; it gives life to others as it transforms.” Now that is a meaningful existence. Whether we are allowed to live one life, or many lives, we get only one at a time. Make it special.
Sat Nam (the light in me acknowledges the light in you).
P.S. Live your life unafraid to get peach juice on your flannel pants.
~Editor: Hayley Samuelson.