His students may not have been special (at least that’s what he told them once) but Wellesley residents sure think David McCullough Jr. is.
In McCullough’s first major public appearance in Wellesley since his “You Are Not Special” graduation speech went viral in 2012, the Wellesley High School English teacher last night treated an audience of over 150 eager fans at the town’s public library to his philosophies on education, stories of newfound fame, and passages from his book to be released in April titled “You Are Not Special… And Other Encouragements.”
McCullough, the son and namesake of the Pulitzer Prize winner and renowned historian, delivered heartwarmingly humble tales of his sudden media attention to a room as attentive as it was packed Thursday. As he laughingly recalled how a black limousine showed up unexpected in his driveway the summer after his speech went viral, an audience member asked who sent the limousine.
“It was a woman who wanted me on her show, I forget her name. I think it was Chelsea?” he said, as many gasped and called out, “Chelsea Lately! Chelsea Handler!”
“It’s been jarring,” he said of his unforeseen fame. “Pleasurable in some ways, but mostly jarring.”
The 2012 “You Are Not Special” speech McCullough delivered, where he used the surprising phrase as a catalyst to urge students to work hard and enjoy being in the moment, went viral within days. The oration earned him a total of over 2.1 million hits on YouTube to date, accolades from conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh, interviews with CNN and local news channels, and an analysis from Psychology Today magazine.
The speech also drew the attention of literary agents, leading to a “whirlwind tour of New York skyscrapers” and eventually landing him a book deal with HarperCollins, he said. His 352-page book, which expands upon the importance of adolescent education and general well-being themes made in his speech, is due out April 22, according to the publisher.
“I wrote the book specifically with teenagers, 16- and 17-year-olds, in mind,” he said, adding that he hoped his students – former and current – would read it.
After McCullough sealed his book deal, he took a year-long sabbatical from teaching. He holed himself up in his Sudbury home, where he would “wake up at the crack of dawn, start typing, write all day, go to bed, and do it all over again, every day,” he said after the event.
McCullough has sent his final manuscript to New York and returned to Wellesley High this fall to resume teaching English.
“I’m very happy where I am,” he said of teaching in Wellesley, noting that he has no plans currently to pursue another book or a career change. “I see no reason to make a change – besides, I have a mortgage to pay,” he added with a smile.
Wellesley residents will surely be glad to hear McCullough plans on staying put, especially as many sang McCullough’s praises after Thursday’s book-reading event.
Reading aloud various excerpts from his newly-drafted memoir, McCullough playfully described his horror with America’s fascination with standardized test data, lofty grades and individual school rankings.
“Learning, true learning, is about expanding comprehension and deepening wisdom,” he said. “It’s about joy, and exhilaration. It’s about discovering how little you know and trying to do something about it… GPAs and SAT scores can tell you little about any of that. Yet all the talk points, always it seems, at numbers.”
McCullough also lamented his students’ fascination with technology, noting that it has led to shortcuts in learning, as well as an ease and acceptance of cheating.
“Knowing how to spell, and mastering conventions of grammar and usage are no longer necessary,” he said. “In fact, knowing is no longer necessary. It’s an outdated concept – almost quaint, like churning butter or dial-up Internet service.”
After his lecture, dozens lined up to shake McCullough’s hand. Some people said they attended the reading just to hear more of the author’s ruminations; others were former students who said were deeply influenced by their sophomore year English teacher.
“He really had an impact on how I think about learning,” said Katie Buteau, 25, a former pupil of McCullough’s who is now studying to become a teacher. “His lessons had this impact on us that really transcended the classroom.”
Another previous pupil’s mother gifted McCullough a canvas painting she crafted herself.
“It’s delightful – I’m already trying to think of where I should hang it,” McCullough said afterwards, flashing a grin of genuine appreciation for the present.
As he graciously shook hands and exchanged smiles with strangers, McCullough’s wife, Janice, dutifully hung to the side of the room and chatted with attendees, watching her husband out of the corner of her eye.
“It’s gratifying for me that all these people now get to know what a wonderful person he is,” she said after the event, adding that she met her husband when she was 10 years old. “You can tell he means what he says. You don’t always see that in people.”
To her – and to most everybody in the room Thursday – it was quite clear that McCullough is, indeed, special.
Jaclyn Reiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org