"You're Not Special"

Article excerpt

Byline: David McCullough Jr.

After my commencement speech that stunned America.

The other day, I found myself in a small glass room with an honest-to-goodness Nobel laureate. This came to pass because a week earlier I had told the members of the Wellesley High School class of 2012 that they are not special. While the well-meant attentions of their parents and the advantages they've enjoyed (or taken for granted) might have led them to think otherwise, none of them, I said, matters more than anyone else, because everyone is special, everyone matters--all 6.8 billion of us. Simple logic, really. Along the way I tried to give them a few laughs, some thoughts to ponder, and, at the end, an exhortation to make for themselves, and for the rest of us, extraordinary lives, abundant in energy and guided by a spirit of selflessness. It was a lovely ceremony, and the speech was well received.

But I did not know the electronic world was watching. Taking lines out of context, sensationalizers started a wildfire. Attention came my way from a million directions, nearly all of it, for one reason or another, enthusiastically positive. My email inbox exploded. My phone rang and rang. Radio, television, and newspapers from around the world wanted to speak with me. Bloggers, tweeters, talk-show hosts, and callers opinionized. Orioles fans wagged fingers at me. Religious people reminded me that all of God's children are special. Limousines whisked me to interviews near and far. For a middle-aged high-school teacher and suburban dad, it has been a dizzying experience.

Enter the Nobel laureate: economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. We spent half an hour sitting a few feet apart, each awaiting his turn on CBS This Morning. He was busy at his laptop. I was busy being nervous. We did not speak to one another. He is a smallish man, I can report, with a gray beard, a professorial mien, and sensible shoes. He is also, as we all know, powerfully smart, supremely accomplished, hugely influential.

And I'm willing to bet he never went to lacrosse camp.

Or to a four-day tourney of any kind in Orlando.

In fact, I'll bet he never even went to economics camp or sat three afternoons a week at age 12 with an economics tutor. And, further, I suspect his wonderfulness was not celebrated when he had been something less than wonderful. I'll guess neither his anxious mom nor a $100-an-hour tutor helped him with a lightly plagiarized 10th-grade Middlemarch paper; nor did his parents encourage him to pack his resume with papier-mache. He did not, I'll bet, endure a six-week intensive SAT prep class or snort Adderall before sitting to take the test. Probably his parents did not hire a pricey consultant to shepherd him through the college-application process; nor did they lean on his teachers to let him retake tests on which he did poorly, or, better, to just change an unwelcome grade because the, um, cat died.

Rather, I'll guess Krugman discovered an interest in economics at some point in school. …