Monday, June 11, 2012

A special parsing

Whenever something comes out that everyone loves and I don't, I feel like I have to revisit it to see if I missed something. Such is the case with the viral “You’re not special” graduation speech.

People are nearly unanimously deifying this speech, but I found parts of it to be cranky and bitter. I emphasize “some,” because there were points I agreed with 100 percent and others I cared for less, but not enough to be riled up about them. That’s why I avoided writing a direct rebuttal to it — it’s nowhere near the worst academic speech I’ve ever read (that would be this, which fortunately is fake). I’ve read lots of these speeches lately, and they led me to talk about a broader point here.

Really, the only thing I objected to in this speech was the main point, that the kids were wrong to think of themselves as special. And even then it was mostly how he put it.

Before I get into that and why I might be wrong, let’s lead off with the reasons why I bristled at this speech:

The title immediately hit me with a bad first impression. It smacks of the militant, “get in line” philosophy that Americans claim to despise when it comes to communist countries or the social contract, but otherwise glorify at every turn. Strike one.

In my experience, such calls against specialness typically go hand-in-hand with complaints about “political correctness” and “the liberal agenda” in schools. This rhetoric naturally arises from conservatives, whose answers to education troubles involve their favorite pastimes: social Darwinism, corporal punishment and privatization. Strike two.

I’m not a big fan of anything that people praise as “telling it like it is,” because that usually means something is harsh and mean-spirited, which people mistakenly equate with truth. They claim they don’t want to sugarcoat, as if the only alternative is blunt force trauma. Many people take pride in this trait: “I’m not a jerk, just honest. If you don’t like it, it’s not my fault you can’t handle it.” Yeah, sure it is. Batter out.

I also don’t subscribe to the notion that you have to shock and shame people into being responsible. While that’s sometimes necessary, I think it says more about our obsession with authority and control than about the degree of our problems. If we really cared, we’d fix them over time instead of trying to snap students awake during the appropriate dramatic moment. Strike four.

Personally, I think the kids are all right and always will be. Concerns to the contrary arise from adults glorifying their own childhood and seeing the next generation from an opposing and threatening perspective. Strike five.

There’s something amazingly projective about baby boomers telling teenagers that they’re self-centered and entitled. If true, where did that attitude come from? Two outs.

As someone who has sat through three graduation speeches of my own and countless others as a spectator, I understand the value of a unique, outstanding, even provocative speech. But however well-received this one was, I’m pretty sure I would have been seething if the speaker implicated that I was worthless and an entitled brat for thinking otherwise. Fly out. And that’s the inning.

When first reading this speech, I did so through the lens of my own scholastic experience. Shortly before I turned four, doctors diagnosed me as developmentally disabled. I went to a developmental preschool for more than a year before starting kindergarten (where I took speech therapy). I felt inside like a normal kid (and others agreed), but outwardly like a mental patient. It was hard to reconcile the two at five years old. Early on in first grade, my teacher promoted me to the best reading group in the class, Reading Group 3. For me, that was the first inkling that maybe I was right about myself. It gave me confidence. I made straight As. By second grade I was in gifted classes.

My grades were never that good again, but were good enough for me to remain in gifted through 12th grade. For the rest of my academic career, my grades largely reflected my interest in the material. Even when I made Fs, I never groveled, because I knew they were my Fs. I did what I had to do, usually. And with my parents so often having bigger fish to fry, I did it largely under the radar. The result: I never failed a class in 21 years (though I did drop one and repeat a couple to make better grades). I wouldn’t have fared so well if I hadn’t had some confidence boosts along the way. I’ve struggled with self-esteem my entire life, and feeling special motivated me. So I hated see someone bemoan specialness as a cause for our problems.

But then I talked to friends and read it again. And in another context, I see some truth to it.

Others, as I’ve since learned, see it through the eyes of an educator plagued by entitled brats (students who feel money should buy a degree) and helicopter parents (who think their child is of an elite pedigree on account of being their child). In that case, yes, they’re not special. (I’ll never forget being in middle school science, where bringing in batteries meant extra points. The richer kids in the class would skip projects and bring in crates of batteries. One day the teacher snapped, said you can’t buy all your points and flunked many of them on a project. That made me feel special.)

I think the “special” spiel would be superb for parents at an early point in their child’s education. Because helicopter parenting takes a possibly irreversible toll after 12 years. Maybe if we caught it earlier, there wouldn’t be so many graduates who are entitled brats. Would it help? It’s worth a shot. Overcompensating too late won’t.

I think life will quickly take care of any sense of entitlement real fast for these students. I foresee this generation turning out much like my grandparents', given that we’re seeing hardships similar to that of earlier generations — war, depression, thrift, the dangers of greed and arrogance, etc. They’ll need to feel special, in the right kind of way, to barrel through life. And hopefully it will be a great, fulfilling, special life.

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