David McCullough
maggie rulli
Wellesley High School
You’re not special
May 28, 2014

You’re Not Special


Scott: I have got Maggie with me in the studio now with a story about a teacher and his inspiring words that made him an internet sensation. And it is actually your old high school, right?

Maggie: Yeah. I always knew him as just Mr. McCullough. And he was known around school for inspiring his classes. Well, his speech to the graduating class of 2012 was a bit unconventional and made him a YouTube star. Now he is back with a new book and the same message.

David McCullough, Jr.: Ladies and gentlemen of the Wellesley High School class of 2012.

Maggie: It definitely wasn’t the usual you-guys-are-awesome type commencement address.

Mr. McCullough: You’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. Yes, you have.

Maggie: But back in 2012, this speech became a YouTube hit.

Mr. McCullough: But do not get the idea you’re anything special…because you’re not.

Maggie: And put high school English teacher David McCullough, Jr. in the internet spotlight.

Mr. McCullough: I pictured the people to whom I would be speaking. And I envisioned them in the cap and gown, which said to me, this ceremonial costume eliminates any individuality; they were on a literal level playing field. They would cross the stage alphabetically, not in order of class rank or some other distinction. All of which said to me, anything you might have achieved in the building no longer matters. The ceremony after all is commencement; it’s the beginning. They were starting afresh.

Maggie: His blunt message and dry sense of humor are part of what makes Mr. McCullough one of the favorite teachers at Wellesley High School in Massachusetts.

Mr. McCullough: Here he is saying, ‘I’m an exhibitionist’. What does that all that add up to?

Maggie: But student Denisha Woodberry wasn’t quite sure how to respond to his speech.

Denisha Woodberry: All I could hear is, ‘you’re not special, you’re not special’. And at first, I was like, ‘oh jeez, Mr. McCullough, that’s harsh’. But then I kind of got the message at the end.

Maggie: After his speech went viral, some people criticized Mr. McCullough for being too harsh. But he says they didn’t get the point of his message. He wasn’t tearing down students, but hoping to inspire them to truly be exceptional by working hard and making their own way in the world.

Mr. McCullough: It was intended to be sort of warmhearted teasing a bit, with – like some teasing so often does – big elements of truth.

You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless.

Maggie: Mr. McCullough’s speech may have been to the graduating class, but he really wanted parents to hear his message. He says they are getting too involved in directing their children’s lives.

Mr. McCullough: It’s a statistical fact – and a statistical inevitability – that most of us are average. The problem is, parents have a very difficult time accepting that. We’re concerned that any wobble or stumble might preclude some later opportunity. Kids need freedom. They need to explore on their own. They need to accept the possibility that failure can be real and that you have to figure out a way to deal with it.

Maggie: Mr. McCullough has been teaching students life lessons through his love of literature for 26 years.

Jack Murray: He really loves teaching. And I think that’s obvious, but it’s the way he does it. And he definitely wants me to learn something. He’s not teaching me so I can get the grade or he’s teaching for the money. He has a goal for me and all the other students in his class to, you know, seize the day. We say at the end of every class, ‘carpe the heck out of the diem’. Do what you love because you love it.

Maggie: And Mr. McCullough is definitely doing what he loves.

Mr. McCullough: It’s the best job in the world. I can’t think of anything more gratifying or fun. I get up every morning and I can’t wait to get here.

Maggie: And now he has turned his tough love advice into a book called You Are Not Special and Other Encouragements.

Mr. McCullough: The sweetest joys of life then come only with the recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone is.

Maggie: It is really cool to see how much he is still pushing students to be their best.

Scott: And if you want to know more about graduation or graduates or all the pomp and circumstance around the ceremony, head to


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