You may have heard about Wellesley High School English teacher David McCullough, Jr.’s commencement speech last year, the message of which was “You’re not special.” McCullough told the class of 2012 that despite the coddling and cooing and butt-wiping of their parents, they’re not inherently better than all the other coddled and cooed-over and butt-wiped children of the world. He urged them to think beyond praise, to move beyond the helicoptering and self-esteem-pumping they’ve been subject to and to focus instead on learning and doing, just for the pure joy and satisfaction of learning and doing. And he was very funny. To wit:
“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….Resist the easy comforts of complacency, the specious glitter of materialism, the narcotic paralysis of self-satisfaction. Be worthy of your advantages.
The speech resonated with lots of folks, enough so that the YouTube video of it got over 2 million views, and McCullough (son of Pulitzer-Prize-winning historian David McCullough) got a book deal.
One of the people smitten by the speech was a school board member of the Northern Humboldt Union High School District in California — one Dan Johnson. Johnson’s daughter was one of the district’s 2013 graduates, and Johnson spoke at her commencement on June 13th, presenting McCullough’s speech as a heartfelt letter he’d written to her. Unfortunately, many of the grads immediately recognized it as McCullough’s speech, what with having studied it in their AP English class.
The Arcata Eye, the small-town (pop. 15,700) newspaper with the best Police Log in the known universe,* was all over this story like poop on a Samoa Boulevard porch. In a series of stories, the paper noted that Johnson and his fellow school board members remained silent about the plagiarism charges for six weeks, ran letters from students who said that the issue remained unaddressed because the principal and superintendent were afraid of insulting a wealthy benefactor, and finally covered Johnson’s crappy and belated August 1st apology, pointing out said crappiness.
Thank you, Arcata Eye, for your reporting! Note how we summarize and link to it, not passing it off as our own! (See, Dan Johnson? Not so hard.)
So: Johnson led off his apology, which he delivered via letter to a board meeting he did not attend, with:
As a sentimental dad who did not go to college myself, I just wanted to use my speaking opportunity to do something special for my daughter, who has graduated with a 4.04 GPA and is headed off to Santa Clara University.
His daughter is special! (Apparently he didn’t read the speech he plagiarized. So ironic, and not in the Alanis way.) He just wanted to do something nice for her!
“What I prepared to deliver at the graduation ceremony was a personalized version of McCollough’s [sic] message directed to my daughter. I thought all in attendance might appreciate it.
But no. UNGRATEFUL WRETCHES.
My mistake, as community members, HSU professors and Arcata High faculty, much smarter than I, have informed me, was not simply crediting McCollough [sic] for his words and I’m sorry for that. I appreciate the constructive criticism and education I’ve received.
No, your mistake was PASSING HIS WORDS OFF AS YOURS. (Also, the whole “I’m just a humble unfrozen caveman lawyer; your world frightens and confuses me” thing is played.)
I understand that for some in our community – the self-appointed referees of good and evil – no explanation or apology I can offer is good enough. But I’m comfortable in the knowledge that their intolerance, so readily on display, is a far more profound flaw than mine.
Whoa, whoa, whoa. The concluding lines of the “apology” are where it really goes off the rails. “Some of you are dicks who will never accept my apology anyway, and I know you are horrider and worserer than I am, nyah nyah, suck it”?
No. No. A thousand times no. A decent apology does not blame others; it accepts responsibility; it names the sin (claiming you wrote a speech you know someone else did is not the same as, say, failing to attribute a couple of lines from Wikipedia); it humbly asks for forgiveness; it makes amends. This statement does none of those things. (And there’s no indication that Johnson apologized to McCullough, either.) It also didn’t offer an explanation for the six weeks of radio silence, during which the rest of the school board twisted in the wind while debate raged in local papers and on Facebook; Johnson offered only that he was “taken very much by surprise” by the outcry and “was dealing with some difficult family issues at the same time.” No justification. The board voted (4-0!) to accept Johnson’s apology, but as the Arcata Eye pointed out, regular citizens were far less sanguine. (One high schooler noted, “As a student, what I see is a wealthy man with a lot of money, power and influence getting away with something because he is ‘well intentioned.’”)
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.
It would be nice to think that Johnson might someday take this to heart.
* Please enjoy selections from the most recent (as of this writing) Arcata Eye Police Log:
5:01 p.m. Meat and dog poop were used not for purposes of good, but as weapons in a Samoa Boulevard neighbor dispute. After a resident complained of the enpoopment of her porch by the forces of feces, she said the poo purveyor had placed additionally meat of an unidentified animal on her porch. An officer contacted both parties and got them to agree to relate to each other as adults.
6:03 p.m. A mobile hash lab burst into flame on Ninth Street as the hostess was off buying lunch meat to go with her tortillas. Various charred hippie-oriented items were extracted from the smoldering ruin of a van.
4:27 p.m. An SUV at the Marsh was window-smashed and enrummaged.
4:40 p.m. A “spoonful of drugs” was reported in the bathroom of a Valley West golden arches. An officer found just a spoon, any lovin’ spoonfuls o’ druggedy goodness having been lapped up by unknown forces prior to their arrival.
7:05 p.m. Apparently there is at least one purse that hasn’t been ripped off at the Marsh parking lot. Or was.