Wellesley High School 2012 Graduation Commencement Speech by David McCullough , Jr.

This speech is not only relevant to those of Wellesley High School graduation class of 2012, this speech is relevant to anyone looking to better understand meaning and happiness in this thing called life. ~ Enjoy

Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough, Jr.’s faculty speech to the Class of 2012 last Friday. Here it is, in its entirety, courtesy of Mr. McCullough:

Dr. Wong, Dr. Keough, Mrs. Novogroski, Ms. Curran, members of the board of education, family and friends of the graduates, ladies and gentlemen of the Wellesley High School class of 2012, for the privilege of speaking to you this afternoon, I am honored and grateful. Thank you.

So here we are… commencement… life’s great forward-looking ceremony. (And don’t say, “What about weddings?” Weddings are one-sided and insufficiently effective. Weddings are bride-centric pageantry. Other than conceding to a list of unreasonable demands, the groom just stands there. No stately, hey-everybody-look-at-me procession. No being given away. No identity-changing pronouncement. And can you imagine a television show dedicated to watching guys try on tuxedos? Their fathers sitting there misty-eyed with joy and disbelief, their brothers lurking in the corner muttering with envy. Left to men, weddings would be, after limits-testing procrastination, spontaneous, almost inadvertent… during halftime… on the way to the refrigerator. And then there’s the frequency of failure: statistics tell us half of you will get divorced. A winning percentage like that’ll get you last place in the American League East. The Baltimore Orioles do better than weddings.)

But this ceremony… commencement… a commencement works every time. From this day forward… truly… in sickness and in health, through financial fiascos, through midlife crises and passably attractive sales reps at trade shows in Cincinnati, through diminishing tolerance for annoyingness, through every difference, irreconcilable and otherwise, you will stay forever graduated from high school, you and your diploma as one, ‘til death do you part.

No, commencement is life’s great ceremonial beginning, with its own attendant and highly appropriate symbolism. Fitting, for example, for this auspicious rite of passage, is where we find ourselves this afternoon, the venue. Normally, I avoid clichés like the plague, wouldn’t touch them with a ten-foot pole, but here we are on a literal level playing field. That matters. That says something. And your ceremonial costume… shapeless, uniform, one-size-fits-all. Whether male or female, tall or short, scholar or slacker, spray-tanned prom queen or intergalactic X-Box assassin, each of you is dressed, you’ll notice, exactly the same. And your diploma… but for your name, exactly the same.

All of this is as it should be, because none of you is special.

You are not special. You are not exceptional.

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’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. And, certainly, we’ve been to your games, your plays, your recitals, your science fairs. Absolutely, smiles ignite when you walk into a room, and hundreds gasp with delight at your every tweet. Why, maybe you’ve even had your picture in the Townsman! [Editor’s upgrade: Or The Swellesley Report!] And now you’ve conquered high school… and, indisputably, here we all have gathered for you, the pride and joy of this fine community, the first to emerge from that magnificent new building…

But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.

The empirical evidence is everywhere, numbers even an English teacher can’t ignore. Newton, Natick, Nee… I am allowed to say Needham, yes? …that has to be two thousand high school graduates right there, give or take, and that’s just the neighborhood Ns. Across the country no fewer than 3.2 million seniors are graduating about now from more than 37,000 high schools. That’s 37,000 valedictorians… 37,000 class presidents… 92,000 harmonizing altos… 340,000 swaggering jocks… 2,185,967 pairs of Uggs. But why limit ourselves to high school? After all, you’re leaving it. So think about this: even if you’re one in a million, on a planet of 6.8 billion that means there are nearly 7,000 people just like you. Imagine standing somewhere over there on Washington Street on Marathon Monday and watching sixty-eight hundred yous go running by. And consider for a moment the bigger picture: your planet, I’ll remind you, is not the center of its solar system, your solar system is not the center of its galaxy, your galaxy is not the center of the universe. In fact, astrophysicists assure us the universe has no center; therefore, you cannot be it. Neither can Donald Trump… which someone should tell him… although that hair is quite a phenomenon.

“But, Dave,” you cry, “Walt Whitman tells me I’m my own version of perfection! Epictetus tells me I have the spark of Zeus!” And I don’t disagree. So that makes 6.8 billion examples of perfection, 6.8 billion sparks of Zeus. You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. In our unspoken but not so subtle Darwinian competition with one another–which springs, I think, from our fear of our own insignificance, a subset of our dread of mortality — we have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement. We have come to see them as the point — and we’re happy to compromise standards, or ignore reality, if we suspect that’s the quickest way, or only way, to have something to put on the mantelpiece, something to pose with, crow about, something with which to leverage ourselves into a better spot on the social totem pole. No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose, or learn or grow, or enjoy yourself doing it… Now it’s “So what does this get me?” As a consequence, we cheapen worthy endeavors, and building a Guatemalan medical clinic becomes more about the application to Bowdoin than the well-being of Guatemalans. It’s an epidemic — and in its way, not even dear old Wellesley High is immune… one of the best of the 37,000 nationwide, Wellesley High School… where good is no longer good enough, where a B is the new C, and the midlevel curriculum is called Advanced College Placement. And I hope you caught me when I said “one of the best.” I said “one of the best” so we can feel better about ourselves, so we can bask in a little easy distinction, however vague and unverifiable, and count ourselves among the elite, whoever they might be, and enjoy a perceived leg up on the perceived competition. But the phrase defies logic. By definition there can be only one best. You’re it or you’re not.

If you’ve learned anything in your years here I hope it’s that education should be for, rather than material advantage, the exhilaration of learning. You’ve learned, too, I hope, as Sophocles assured us, that wisdom is the chief element of happiness. (Second is ice cream… just an fyi) I also hope you’ve learned enough to recognize how little you know… how little you know now… at the moment… for today is just the beginning. It’s where you go from here that matters.

As you commence, then, and before you scatter to the winds, I urge you to do whatever you do for no reason other than you love it and believe in its importance. Don’t bother with work you don’t believe in any more than you would a spouse you’re not crazy about, lest you too find yourself on the wrong side of a Baltimore Orioles comparison. Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction. Be worthy of your advantages. And read… read all the time… read as a matter of principle, as a matter of self-respect. Read as a nourishing staple of life. Develop and protect a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it. Dream big. Work hard. Think for yourself. Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might. And do so, please, with a sense of urgency, for every tick of the clock subtracts from fewer and fewer; and as surely as there are commencements there are cessations, and you’ll be in no condition to enjoy the ceremony attendant to that eventuality no matter how delightful the afternoon.

The fulfilling life, the distinctive life, the relevant life, is an achievement, not something that will fall into your lap because you’re a nice person or mommy ordered it from the caterer. You’ll note the founding fathers took pains to secure your inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness–quite an active verb, “pursuit”–which leaves, I should think, little time for lying around watching parrots rollerskate on Youtube. The first President Roosevelt, the old rough rider, advocated the strenuous life. Mr. Thoreau wanted to drive life into a corner, to live deep and suck out all the marrow. The poet Mary Oliver tells us to row, row into the swirl and roil. Locally, someone… I forget who… from time to time encourages young scholars to carpe the heck out of the diem. The point is the same: get busy, have at it. Don’t wait for inspiration or passion to find you. Get up, get out, explore, find it yourself, and grab hold with both hands. (Now, before you dash off and get your YOLO tattoo, let me point out the illogic of that trendy little expression–because you can and should live not merely once, but every day of your life. Rather than You Only Live Once, it should be You Live Only Once… but because YLOO doesn’t have the same ring, we shrug and decide it doesn’t matter.)

None of this day-seizing, though, this YLOOing, should be interpreted as license for self-indulgence. Like accolades ought to be, the fulfilled life is a consequence, a gratifying byproduct. It’s what happens when you’re thinking about more important things. Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly. Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them. And then you too will discover the great and curious truth of the human experience is that selflessness is the best thing you can do for yourself. The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special.

Because everyone is.

Congratulations. Good luck. Make for yourselves, please, for your sake and for ours, extraordinary lives.

David McCullough

Harmony

My lovely friend and Ashtangi – Cyndi Laird, Supta Kurmasana – a most challenging pose for ‘free breathing’. Photo from www.ashtanga4life.com

‎”Asana practice should be a harmonious experience, never a struggle. The manner of breathing into a wind instrument — a flute, for instance — can create either a grating screech or a melodious song. The body, too, is an instrument. If used skillfully, as in the unison of movement and breath, the resulting posture is a useful and harmonious experience. When performed with the graceful orchestration of all its parts, asana can become a music of the body, breath, and mind. Such music moves everything it touches.”

~A.G. Mohan

This Morning I Practiced – By Eric Jeffers

This writing is from Eric Jeffers, who wrote a note on Facebook, which made its way around.  When I sometimes feel that yoga is too much about a teacher or a ‘rockin’ playlist…I get a gentle reminder of why the Ashtanga lineage has meant so much to me.

Silence, independence, learning to trust and believe in yourself…exactly where you are.

This morning I practiced.

It was very simple. I unrolled a mat, said a few words softly to myself, and began.

Nobody asked me to open or expand anything. I was not instructed to take anything from one level to another. No one asked me to melt any part of my body. It was never suggested that I should embody some concept or another. I didn’t hear anyone speak their truth. No one assured me that I could manifest anything I wanted. It was never suggested that I would be happier if I bought some new product. I wasn’t told to pursue any bliss. Spirit was neither mentioned nor invoked. No one used the word energy. Nobody implied that I could be stronger, more beautiful or more free than I currently am.

In fact, no one spoke at all.

I spent two hours moving through a familiar sequence of poses. I did this practice in a warm, quiet room listening to my breath and the breath of those practicing nearby. I was assisted by a gentle and patient human being who, for the most part, left me alone to do my work. At the end of my practice, I lay on the floor completely still for a long time.

When I was done, I quietly left. People smiled at me on my way out. I smiled at them.

I will practice again tomorrow.

The Trap of False Choice

The other day I got a phone call from a woman who owns a boutique.  She wants my help.  I had given her some small tips in passing some time ago and she ended up implementing them in her store…oddly enough, it’s helping. Now, she wants me to consult/coach her.  I met with her briefly to just get synopsis of areas that we could focus on, and during the meeting I found myself really enjoying the process.  I have a lot from past experience that I can provide her, and I know I could help her find more time for herself both to be a mom and to plan and strategize her business.

So…here I am in the midst of this transition.  Currently, I am a mother, part time yoga teacher, personal and professional wellness coach in training, with an 18 year career of merchandise/business management under my belt. This is where my mind begins to do its thing…it begins to make me ask “who am I?”  I often feel I have to choose one thing and focus on it.   However, there is a part of me that makes me wonder if I really do have to pick one thing right now?  I mean…is there a chance that this can all converge in some crazy way?

In Yoga, it is often asked that we pick a lineage and stick with it.  Perhaps this is where I get stuck…and perhaps in this circumstance it is a little dogmatic to think like this.  Perhaps just being exactly where I am at is what I need to stick with, until something eventually changes.

Enter Keith.

Last week, as I sat in the front yard playing with my daughter, Keith came home and sat down with us.  I talked to him about my mental stasis. About me feeling like I need to choose…and he laughed.

“Oh…false choice.”  He said, so easily with a smile.  Then I laughed and realized, only Keith would know this off the top of his head.  “It doesn’t have to be one way or the other…it could be a completely different way.”

I thought, “You mean there is a name for the conundrum or mental anguish I suffer from often?”

You betcha.

And the google search began.  It seems that for many of us False Choice can lead us into a happiness trap.  That things need to be black or white for happiness or success.  Oftentimes we don’t realize there may be a middle road or another option.  False Choice – according to Wikipedia  ,”often reflects a deliberate attempt to eliminate a middle ground on an issue”.  This choice can be offered up by someone or created by ourselves.  In thinking back on my own life it seems I am GUILTY of doing this to myself, and I do it OFTEN.

In a situation like mine, false choice can be very unhelpful and rather debilitating. However, it can be helpful at times if we listen carefully – for example:  “Do I look for another job that will provide more satisfaction or do I stay in this job I really hate? ”  The answer is in the choices offered.

I teach yoga part-time because I enjoy it.  It allows me to get out of the house and give back to others and share a practice that has helped me in many ways. I also happen to enjoy the thought of coaching and helping others reach goals and tap into potential….therefore the health coaching program.   Because of my history in merchandising and retail, I still have a strong passion for it and I am good at it. My good friends who know me nicknamed me “Retail Rossi”.

I chose to stay out of corporate NOT because I didn’t like what I did. I simply believe I am destined to do something other than I ‘ve already done.  I always saw myself as an entreprenuer…and right now I am ‘under construction’ and in a phase of laying the foundation and creating a dynamic versus static vision.

I find that I impose the False Choice often on myself and it has created far more mental struggle and stress than I would like.  I realize now that I am going to make a more concerted effort to notice when this type of thinking arises and make an internal shift….this is a practice.

I heard someone say once, “The most interesting people you will ever meet have usually reinvented themselves in some way.”  This statement is motivation enough to remain ‘steady’ with what currently is, so that this middle way may manifest until it becomes more focused.