Speak for Yourself

Claire Duffy's blog about public speaking and communication (in real life). Speak well, do well!

Teacher tells the truth, and finds a global audience

Last June in Boston, a high school English teacher became famous for a graduation speech. He told his students they were not special. Now he has a book deal,  and will be taking a break from teaching.

David McCulloch is an engaging guy. Personable. Pleasant. Wise but wry. The speech is very enjoyable. He has great rapport with his audience (tick). In-jokes and teen-culture keep ‘em laughing (tick). He has something to say (tick) and he says it very well (tick). It’s full of rhetorical devices that delight the ear (there’ a list at the bottom of this post). And he bombs us with statistics and facts which he shapes like clay into a story whose point is that we are each but one stitch in a great tapestry.  You are not special because we are all special. And he tells us what to do: “Carpe the hell out of the Diem” (tick).

He says:

“It was a lovely ceremony, and the speech was well received. But I did not know the electronic world was watching. ….. 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. Limousines whisked me to interviews near and far. For a middle-aged high-school teacher and suburban dad, it has been a dizzying experience”.

Reflecting on this has led me down two paths of thought. The first is how serendipitous this is. How mysterious the location of the nerve that, when touched, turns out to be the flashpoint, the zeitgeist, the issue du jour. It’s as if a ball no one knew of just got kicked into play.

Nothing in McCulloch’s speech is new, or surprising or very different from sentiments that have been expressed before. Plenty of teachers (and at least some parents) have been saying this sort of thing for generations, but there’s no viral video or book deal for them.

No, this speech is a hit because it gives voice to something we’ve been secretly worried about but couldn’t quite say.

Not long ago I asked some teachers to tell me what kinds of communication challenged them most. One answered “How to give constructive feedback rather than praising kids for crap work. Being able to tell them they’re wrong when they are in order to build resilience, rather than constantly trying to avoid hurting their feelings. Some realism is needed in schools these days!”

That’s the key. When, as McCulloch says,  “B is the new C” and “the midlevel curriculum is called Advanced College Placement”, his approach offers us a way out. He’s a correcting force in a world  out of balance, where the wish to build kids’ self esteem has become a cult that’s started strangling its followers.

The second path my reflections rambled down was the power of ‘having a way with words’. OK he’s an english teacher, words are his business, but it’s still an impressive and technically skilled performance. The speech is like a tumble dryer of repetition and alliteration and contrasts, inversions and triads, which stimulate our ear with their music, and help us absorb his meaning. On paper it’s an overwritten shopping list but on the air – gripping. Lots of people may feel as he does, but it’s rare to be able to express it so eloquently. Eloquence  is a vehicle, it carries thoughts and ideas out to a wider world. That’s why  being able to speak well matters.

McCulloch may be ‘a middle-aged high-school teacher and suburban Dad’, but he’s got a pedigree. He’s the son of another David McCulloch,  “author, narrator, historian, and lecturer … two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award… who has… narrated multiple documentaries [including Seabiscuit]…hosted American Experience for twelve years… [and] has been called a “master of the art of narrative history.” …The New York Times…wrote that he was “incapable of writing a page of bad prose.”

If someone of such stature  has read you bedtime stories and cajoled you in your high chair, you just may have a head start in the linguistic expression stakes.  You might also know quite a bit about what it is to be special. Really, properly  special.

McCulloch Jr urges his students to “Be worthy of your advantages…Develop a moral sensibility and demonstrate the character to apply it”.

How fortunate we are that he did so himself.

Here is the speech. Commit 12 minutes to watching it, you will be enriched.

You can read the transcript of  David Mc Culloch’s speech here.

Here  are some quotes that I especially liked.

Your planet … 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.

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

Don’t bother with work you don’t believe in any more than you would a spouse you’re not crazy about,

Dream big.  Work hard.  Think for yourself.  Love everything you love, everyone you love, with all your might.

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.

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.


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This entry was posted on 19/08/2012 by in Audience connection, Presenting a speech, Presenting Data and Statistics.

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