Although the book is full of truths both timely and necessary, You Are Not Special . . . and Other Encouragements by David McCullough, Jr. violates one cardinal rule for writers: know your audience. An expansion of his 12-minute high school commencement speech (view it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_lfxYhtf8o4), McCullough’s book, as stated in the foreword, “[is] for teenagers and anyone with an interest in them.” Aside from eating fast food and sleeping in, I can’t think of too many things that appeal to both teens and adults, much less reading the same book—even if it is a guide to living a life of engagement and experience in a society that only recognizes accolades and achievements.
The author addresses the reader as “you.” Early on, sentences like “You watch television, flip through magazines, explore the web, hear what your parents and siblings and aunts and uncles and grandparents and teachers and coaches have to say” make it clear he is talking exclusively to teens. And I understand why: it feels more personal, and it is fitting in a book that is an extension of McCullough’s speech to his audience of young graduates at Wellesley High School, his audience that he addressed as “you.”
But his diction tells us otherwise. Using words like ovine, vituperative, and lissome, which are hardly in the hip pockets of the post-Millennials’ lexicon, makes this otherwise instructive and worthwhile work a stumbling block to his intended readers. In addition, McCullough uses long- ago cultural figures (i.e., Wolfman Jack), politicians (i.e., Herman Mann), literature (“Richard Cory”), and other references and allusions familiar only to some middle-aged and older adults and, most especially, to English teachers. Which of course, McCullough is. But his intended audience is not. (Although hats off to McCullough as a teacher if his students have as rich a vocabulary and knowledge of literature necessary to fully understand this book.)
Anyway, I’m not advocating that the book be dumbed down. With the decline of reading and comprehension, writers and educators need to work together to increase not decrease reading levels. I am all for elevating our collective intellect; however, the book could have easily been divided into three sections: one for teens, one for parents, and one for educators and those who have the power/influence to improve/reform standardized education. McCullough could still have used “you,” but tailored each section to his intended audience, using appropriate words and references. After all, it’s the message that matters.
And McCullough does have many good messages. He writes on the hazards of overprotective parenting, the need for teens to know who they are and to choose friends wisely, the joy of learning, and the slippery slope of ” [confusing] net worth with self-worth” among other topics. For example, he writes:
· On parenting – “Any intercession, even the feathery light, can come at a cost to the child’s emerging sense of autonomy and the myriad benefits of fending for himself or herself.”
· On teaching – “[A teacher’s] job is to help [his or her] students recognize and value what’s best in themselves, then to learn to build on it.”
· On living – “Love everything.”
So if you’re a teenager, watch the speech on YouTube. If you’re a parent, educator, education administrator or politician, read the book. McCullough, drawing on his years of teaching and parenting, has a lot to say that is worth not only reading, but putting into practice and sharing with those positioned to enact change in our schools, our communities, and our nation.
Just be sure to have a dictionary handy.