When I wrote this year's address, I didn't know whether I'd be called on to present it to graduating high school snots or graduating college smart-asses. Not that it matters much. When you're my age, trying to spot differences between 18-year-old people and 22-year-old people is like wondering whether it's earwigs or grasshoppers eating the crap out of your garden.
But acknowledging that high schools rarely have guest speakers at their graduations, it's more likely this address would be delivered to a gymnasium full of graduating college smart-asses, and I imagine at this point in the presentation you smart-asses will rise up and protest having been lumped onto the same bug list with mere high school snots. "We aren't anything like those earwigs," you will insist. "We know four years' worth of stuff more than they do!" You might even demand to know whose idea it was to invite such a disrespectful old undiscriminating young-people-lumping-together fart to give your graduation address.
Settle down, kiddies. What is it you smart-ass snots say? "Chill?" First of all, I haven't been invited by anyone to present this address anywhere ... yet. And secondly, you're not nearly as different from your little brothers and sisters in high school as you'd like to think you are. You know a little more than they do, yes. You are somewhat more qualified for higher-paying employment than they are, yes. You can binge drink legally, and they can't, yes.
But from my perspective, your similarities far outweigh your differences, and one similarity in particular is why I have chosen to insult you and be demeaning and nasty on this most auspicious occasion, your graduation day. Other than your music (and your clothing, and your driving habits, and your hacky-sack playing, and your attitudes), it is the one thing I find most irritating about you. All of you, be you 18 or 22. It is the one thing about you I would like to change the most. It is the notion so many of you hold about yourselves that you are "special."
You aren't. Get it out of your head that you are. If there is anything I hope to accomplish with this address, I would send you from this auspicious occasion knowing there is nothing special about you. Not yet, anyway. But listen, if you so desperately want there to be something special about yourself, then there's no better day than today to get the ball rolling.
I blame your parents. Believe me, I know how it works. I've done it to my own daughter, God forgive me. From the cradle on, I've told her how special she is. And her mom was right there with me, lying through her teeth. To make matters worse, 11 grades' worth of teachers have reinforced our infernal fib. As a result, here's my girl, a high school snot just a year away from graduating herself, and she thinks she's soooooo special.
I'm not sure when it started, this "special" racket. Maybe it was Dr. Spock. Maybe it was Sesame Street. I just don't know. But I can tell you, for the last generation or more, anyone who wasn't prepared to constantly remind their babies how special they are might as well have started out their family with a vasectomy.
Our intentions were good. We only meant to make insecure kids feel better about themselves. But it has gotten out of control. In a Wall Street Journal article, Jeffrey Zaslow writes that the constant hunger for baseless praise has reached well beyond childhood, to the point that young workers need to be stroked so ceaselessly that businesses are actually creating positions manned by people who specialize in doing the stroking. Corporations bring in consultants to direct seminars on how managers can most effectively compliment their employees because it seems too many younger employees can't function well without being told how well they are functioning.
And it's only going to get worse, because it's getting worse in the home and in the schools. Zaslow reports that the single kid who used to be designated "Student of the Month" has multiplied to 40 students a month in some schools for fear of leaving anyone out. Families are buying (for $32.95) a dinner plate that reads "You Are Special Today," for use at the table by whichever young'un did something nominally worthy of getting to eat off the special plate.
OK, maybe telling a toddler he or she is special isn't such a sin. They forget most of what you tell them, anyway. I suppose even an 8- or 9-year old could stand to hear it now and then. But I swear, by the preteens, it's time for some reality to set in. We don't send our kids to middle school still believing in Santa Claus, do we? So how can we allow them to enter puberty thinking they are "juss the mos' pwecious thing there ever was?"
I hate to be the one to have to tell you this, but it's unlikely you'll hear it from your mom or dad. The truth is, being special involves more than taking out the trash when it's your turn or pulling a "B" in English Comp. And it's certainly more than just being you. Being special isn't an innate condition. It's an accomplishment, the result of commitment and hard work and love for what you're working at. Being authentically special means you have done something authentically special, and you, dear graduates, haven't been around long enough to have done much of anything, let alone something authentically special. Trust me, to anyone who isn't related to you, you're just another car on the interstate. Another foot to trip over in a crowded theater. Another face to forget.
An even sadder truth: Most of you will never do anything truly special. The only claim our species has to being special rests on the efforts of a very few individuals. A handful, really. Rare people who transcend the mundane and expected, who reach beyond the limits and in doing so, show that limits are an illusion. The rest of us just sell insurance or program computers or try out for American Idol. We can only admire and envy the truly special people for the commitment they have and for the work they do. We may even hate them for being something we'll never be. But one thing is for certain. We need them. You'll find that out when you have kids of your own--when you're bent over, telling little Danny and Danielle how special they are. Without that handful of truly special people among us, those kids would have no idea what you're talking about.
Now smart-asses ... each and every one of you ... go forth and prove me wrong.