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Posted at 05:48 PM ET, 06/12/2012

The trouble with special

A high school graduation address by history teacher David McCullough Jr. has been attracting a lot of notice for telling the graduates, “You’re nothing special.”

“Contrary to what your U9 soccer trophy suggests,” he said, “your glowing seventh-grade report card, despite every assurance of a certain corpulent purple dinosaur, that nice Mister Rogers and your batty Aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you . . . you’re nothing special.

“Yes, you’ve been pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, bubble-wrapped. Yes, capable adults with other things to do have held you, kissed you, fed you, wiped your mouth, wiped your bottom, trained you, taught you, tutored you, coached you, listened to you, counseled you, encouraged you, consoled you and encouraged you again. You’ve been nudged, cajoled, wheedled and implored. You’ve been feted and fawned over and called sweetie pie. Yes, you have. . . .

“But do not get the idea you’re anything special. Because you’re not.”

Harsh? Nonsense! This is great news.

Special is no compliment.

I defy anyone who has seen a Christmas Special of your favorite sitcom or the “Star Wars Special Edition” to look at the word the same way again.

After-school specials are full of people in overalls warning you about the dangers of drugs and how Friendship Can Save Lives.

Special Features are things you don’t want on the DVD.

Special Sauce invariably includes mayonnaise.

“We’re going to have a very special evening,” everyone says, at the beginning of four-hour awards shows that are miserable and seem to take a good 20 hours of your life and are absolutely and entirely identical to every preceding awards show.

Special Occasions are things Zales dreamed up to sell necklaces in the shape of infinity-heart-dragonflies. To buy a dress to wear for Special Occasions is to buy a dress you will not wear.

They are things like Administrative Professionals Day. If someone were not handing you a piece of cardboard with some glitter on it, you might not notice them at all. Special Events are things that require mediocre DJs and microwaved mini-quiches.

“Dateline” Specials are usually disappointing, and tend to revolve around pedophiles, stranger danger and cleaning products In Your Home Right Now That Will Turn On You After The Break. “To Catch a Predator” was, I believe, a special.

Special Interests are something everyone wants to keep out of politics. Special Friends are people Mommy is dating but is not yet ready to introduce into the family in any sort of permanent way. The arrival of Special Forces tends to ruin your Christmas party.

Special Committees are dull, secretive and dangerous.

Special Commissions seek for years and years and hold hearing after hearing, and when they emerge they have resolved nothing and found out less.

Special Treatment is something people insist they don’t want to get singled out for.

Specialties are dishes that people have wisely decided not to serve anywhere else.

The Daily Special is the food that will go sour or evolve into a sentient being if the chef doesn’t get it out of the kitchen THIS INSTANT.

Special Characters are something you activate on the keyboard by mistake, causing your boss to think you are typing in tongues. Special Attention is something your kid requires if he is not well-behaved and has a tendency to choke on pen caps. Special Announcements interrupt the program just when things are getting good.

Specialists invariably aren’t. If they are, they charge too much.

It was a combination of over-extension and snide remarks about the Special Olympics and Special Education that did it. Special has crept slowly down the dictionary page into the land of euphemism. “Oh,” everyone says, as you back the car into the garage door yet again, “Alexandra has always been special.”

“Oh,” everyone mutters, as they squint at your mediocre drawing of what you insist to be your family but resembles an irate carrot. “Special.”

Or maybe it was Special K that pushed us to the brink. It isn’t in any way remarkable. It doesn’t even have dried fruit. For that, you need Special Special K.

Special is what you call things when you can’t think of anything good to say about them. Special is just “particular” in heels. Special is “unique,” but you can modify it with “very” without inadvertent irony.

Special is awful. Special is terrible. If we are all special, we are done for. We will never achieve anything greater or more momentous than to annoy one another in two-hour prime-time segments.

If only McCullough had stuck to his guns! But at the end of the speech, he capitulated. “The sweetest joys of life, then, come only with the recognition that you’re not special. Because everyone is.”

That’s the worst news yet.

By  |  05:48 PM ET, 06/12/2012

 
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