I have a long list of favorite movies, one of which is The Incredibles, an animated tale about superheroes who are forced to hide their powers and live "normal" lives. The Incredibles is one of my favorites for several reasons: It's smart; it's funny; and its message is one that I trumpet at all possible opportunities, having to do a definition of the word "special:" who is, who isn't, and should everyone be?
The first time it dawned on me that something was off in our little culture was a few years ago, when I was at a soccer game in which my friend Jackie's son Chris was playing. It was chilly and we were watching from the car. Truthfully, we weren't really watching all that carefully. We were gabbing and watching, gabbing and gabbing. When the game ended, Chris -- a highly proficient soccer player -- came storming to the car, sputtering. He was put out because he'd been told by the coach to back off, to not score any more points because Chris' team was too good, making the other team look not so good. At this point I started to sputter, and was informed by Jackie this was standard operating procedure in schools these days, that kids were being taught "middle of the road" was the way to go. One school's team, at least in this particular grade school, was not to thump another school's team because "it might make the other kids feel bad." Yet another variation of the idea that everyone is special; that everyone -- even the kid who can't run or kick a ball -- is a winner.
To carry the sputtering theme a bit further, I've been sputtering about this concept ever since, appalled that kids in music, in sports, in art, in spelling, and apparently in every other endeavor that's supposed to prepare them for a world where in fact everybody isn't special all receive trophies and ribbons and accolades, no matter how poorly they perform. My eye-bugging frustration has pretty much been limited to my own four walls and to friends and family who, for the most part, agree with me. When I saw The Incredibles for the first time, I was delighted that the folks at Pixar were on board.
Now, along has come David McCullough, Jr., who it seems reached into my brain and repeated my disgruntled mutterings to a 2012 graduating class in Massachusetts. Mr. McCullough, an English teacher and the son of award-winning historian David McCullough, Sr., told the Wellesley High School grads that they have been "pampered, cosseted, doted upon, helmeted, and bubble-wrapped." He said "No matter how often your maternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you...you are not special." He encouraged the class "not to succumb to a culture in which everyone gets a trophy, to work for love of what you do, not money; to climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge. Enjoy the air, behold the view. Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you."
And he went on: "We have come to love accolades more than genuine achievement...No longer is it how you play the game, no longer is it even whether you win or lose or learn to grow, or enjoy yourself doing it. Now it's 'So what does this get me?'"
Then he said the very words I've been crowing, the message The Incredibles through humor and narrative and wonderful animation did its best to convey: If everyone is special, then no one is.
I've had some successes in my life. I've also had failures, thank god, because if I didn't have failures I wouldn't have a clue what it felt like to succeed. I've won exactly one trophy in my life: when I was 15 and in competitive color guard in high school. Every girl in my guard got a trophy because we, as a unit, were the best in that one particular winter competition, at that particular time, at that particular moment in the world's spin. We all got a trophy because every one of us deserved it. Forty-one years later the trophy remains in my possession, resting quietly on a top shelf in my house. No one looks at, no one who passes through my doors even knows it exists. But I do, and every time I see it I remember how good we were, how good I was, and how good it felt to practice five nights a week in a hot gymnasium being screamed at and pushed and prodded to be better, to be the best. We didn't care how the other color guards "felt" when we won, and if we could have we would have crushed them in every competition by as many points as we could rack up. It's inconceivable for to me to imagine our instructor telling us to "back off" because the other guard might have felt bad. We were either going to win or lose. We were either going to be special, or we were not.
Thank you, Mr. McCullough, for your brilliant instruction to the Wellesley grads, and thank goodness for the Internet, which can spread your message far and wide. Graduating seniors of 2012 will not long from now be building businesses, taking charge, and running our country. They should strive not to be normal, and should not believe for a moment they are special because someone along the way told them they were. They should actually strive to become special, to think outside the lines of their own life story, to push and shove and make the world a better place. They should climb the mountain for the view, for the journey, and for the accomplishment. They should play the game fairly, accept loss when it comes (because it will), and shirk selfishness for a bigger picture. They should pack up all the meaningless trophies and ribbons and letters of achievement from social orchestrators who decided telling kids they're special, like sprinkling magic dust, would make them so, and store the boxes in some deep attic, then go out there and actually win a trophy based on merit, maybe for the first time in their lives. They should look up at what's possible, not to the side at all the others who believed the press of the magic dust sprinklers; they should run as fast as they can, jump as high as they can, and become, at all costs (dare I say it?)... incredible.