“You are NOT Special” by David McCullough Jr.: Book Review and Reflection

bookAfter a recent book-signing appearance at Buttonwood Books in Cohasset, the store owner kindly offered Reid Oslin and me the opportunity to take home any book we wanted. My pick, after a hasty scan of the shelves, was “You are NOT Special…and Other Encouragements” by David McCullough, Jr. I just finished reading it, and I’m glad I made that choice.

McCullough, son of the author of well-received biographies of John Adams and Harry Truman, teaches English at Wellesley, Massachusetts High School. This book grew out of his June, 2012 commencement address at Wellesley High. He shot to fame when some of his excerpted remarks went viral along with a video that someone had taken and uploaded without his knowledge.

I’d heard of his talk and read an article or two about it, but I didn’t know he’d written a book. It’s a good read, rather like an expanded version of that commencement address. He weaves in a lot of his personal experiences and anecdotes as he discusses a range of topics: being a parent; education and being a teacher; high school kids; school sports and extracurricular activities; the college scene; wealth and success; and lives well lived.

He also wades through the minefield of explaining the differences between boys and girls. He begins,

“Before we proceed, though, a caveat. ..I intend no offense and apologize in advance if any is taken. I’ll be playing the percentages as I see them, merely, and this with no formal training or education beyond a sociology course in college thirty-something years ago that I found largely tedious. If you anticipate even a teaspoon of umbrage, skip this section. …Here’s my first salvo: the genders differ…they differ so much, in fact, I sometime wonder if there are two realities, the male and the female.”

Author David McCullough delivering his 2012 commencement address at Wellesley High School.

Author David McCullough delivering his 2012 commencement address at Wellesley High School.

To my mind, he makes it through that minefield unscathed. What he has to say on the subject is going to be helpful to me in my still-new assignment as a writing instructor for young college students. Thus far, I’ve found that there’s a big, big difference between the guys and the girls in their respective approaches to academic matters. Now I understand a little more about why that is.

I also thought of a goodly number of people I know, and whose friendship I treasure, while reading the chapter about college. Wellesley High undoubtedly sends a high percentage of its graduates to “prestige” or “elite” institutions. Though he has a great respect for such schools and the Wellesley kids who enroll there, McCullough also writes with enthusiasm and respect for other possible post-secondary-school approaches to preparing for the game of life.

That part first reminded me of William F. Buckley’s quip – that he’d rather by governed by the first 2000 people in the Manhattan phone book than by the entire faculty of Harvard University. I also recalled Oscar Wilde’s dictum about education’s being a fine thing, but that it’s good to remember that nothing that’s worth learning can ever be taught.

But that section also made me reflect upon my friends who’ve taken routes other than four years of college into their admirable, productive adult lives. Some of them went right to work or into the military; others got married early and started their families right away. Some stumbled early and then got serious about themselves and those around them. Along the way they found their respective niches. A few picked up some targeted or specialized training, or earned a college degree later on. Other just realized what they loved to do, and went out and did it.

Most of those friends did it the hard way and scrapped for everything they’ve got. They appreciate what they have and don’t sweat the small stuff. They love every day of their lives, which they live with passionate engagement. I love spending time with such individuals. I’m glad that the author seems to share my affection for them. America needs more such people.

Which brings me to another of the book’s most important points: the importance of friends and friendship. He writes,

“We are, then, most genuinely ourselves in our choice of friends…Show me your friends, and I’ll tell you your future. And, of course, much about who you are…In their company we encounter the universe and sift together through our discoveries for the gemstones over which we revel together. And through the rough patches we commiserate. In friendships abides our true wealth. They warm the cosmic chill.”

Great stuff, that. I could go on, but I think I’ll stop here. Suffice it to say that David McCullough manages to get a wealth of valuable advice and wisdom born of experience into his compact little book. Much of what he says, you’ve already heard. But perhaps not in quite the same way that he puts it.

So if you’re looking for a good book, check this one out. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

One Response to ““You are NOT Special” by David McCullough Jr.: Book Review and Reflection”

  1. Patrick J. Daly (@pjdaly7) Says:

    Good recommendation, Tom. I too remember when that Wellesley High graduation speech got a great deal of publicity. I wasn’t aware either that a book grew out of that day’s happenings. I’m certainly a fan of the author’s father. I think I’ll give his book a try too.

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