by Bob Minzesheimer)
Until June 2012, David McCullough Jr. was a high school English teacher best known as the son of a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian. Then he delivered a 12-minute commencement speech at Wellesley (Mass.) High School, where he teaches.
"You've been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped," he told the graduates. "But do not get the idea you're anything special. Because you are not."
A local cable-access tape of the speech went viral (2.2 million views on YouTube) and led to McCullough's collection of essays, You Are Not Special and Other Encouragements (Ecco, due Tuesday). McCullough. 55, who's married and has four kids (ages 19,18,15 and 11), spoke to USA TODAY's Bob Minzesheimer from his home in Sudbury, Mass.
Q: You write that a line or two from your speech was taken out of context. How so?
A: The line "You are not special" and its variants were just part of the speech and a setup for the ideas I shared at the end. Imagine, though, a teacher who thought some of his or her students were more important than others. Imagine a parent who thought that way about his or her children. Everyone matters — which tends to nullify concepts of specialness. The graduates to whom I was speaking were commencing the rest of their lives. No matter the distinction he or she might have achieved to that point, each was starting afresh.
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Q: Explain your book's subtitle, And Other Encouragements.
A: An inflated sense of self can be burdensome for a teenager, even inhibiting. With expectations high, every step tends to become laden with significance. For some, this can be paralyzing. Better would be to set aside any self-satisfaction or notions of entitlement, focus on the moment, and try one's best. Outcomes will take care of themselves.
Q: In your speech, you noted that at your school, "good is no longer good enough … a B is the new C … the midlevel curriculum is called Advanced College Placement." What was the reaction?
A: Everyone seems to agree grade inflation is an issue. What to do about it remains elusive. Every student wants to do well as the culture defines doing well — which means, at the very least, to be deemed above average. Statistically speaking, this notion is problematic, so upward grades creep.
Q: You write about loving every day you teach. Really? That's not something you hear from a lot of teachers and union leaders these days.
A: Yes, really. I recognize I am very fortunate in this. Imagine, though, spending your working days discussing things you think important with people you like very much, and the purpose is their growth and the betterment of the world in which we live. Not so bad, that.
Q: You also write about telling students that "grades only matter to the kid who's missing the point." What's the point?
A: The exhilaration of discovery, the excitement of new and interesting perspectives, of personal growth, and coming to find hard work a pleasure, and developing a discerning eye and an empathetic spirit and a sturdy backbone and optimism about someday achieving enough wisdom to be of benefit to others.
Q: You describe Henry David Thoreau as a failed teacher. If he came back to life, could he get a job teaching at your school?
A: Thoreau, the teacher, was thought too unconventional for his day. Probably he'd be thought too unconventional for our day, too. I'd like to think, though, we'd find a place for him at Wellesley High just the same. Certainly he'd be welcome in my classroom. Or, rather, I hope we'd find welcome in his.
Q: What's your favorite novel to teach?
A: I have a hard time thinking in terms of favorites. I always find myself quite enthusiastic about whatever it is I'm teaching — otherwise, why teach it? That said, talking about The Great Gatsby or Zorba the Greek with a roomful of interested kids is always, for me, a very happy hour.
Q: And the most challenging novel to teach?
A: Because the ideas of Heart of Darkness are often dense and gloomy and profound, and the writing often dense and gloomy and profound, generating an eagerness to continue up that river can be, for the teacher, a bit of a challenge — but who doesn't like a challenge?
Q: If you had a minute with the secretary of Education or President Obama, what would you tell them?
A: I'd thank them for their service, for their good work. Then I'd encourage them to look beyond scores on standardized tests as determinants of what it means to be educated. I'd also like to know what they've read lately and enjoyed and why.
Q: And finally, why did the son of a historian chose to teach English, not history?
A: My father majored in English, too. I just love to read. I love sentences and words, literature and poetry and plays. It's exciting to try to pass that on. And I'm not good at anything else.