It is a gorgeous Monday morning here on what is the second to last Monday of school for my children. Yes, in eight short days of instruction, I will no longer have a sixth, second, and kindergartener. It is that time of the school year when parents and adults alike begin thinking in terms of chapters and doors closing more than what chapters and doors are opening. It is a time of bitter and sweet for many of us who remember when we too were ending our school years and dreaming of the summer days.
In the ten years I was a classroom teacher, this time of year was a very bittersweet time for me indeed. Too many nights at the end of school years were spent with a stack of essays for my pillow, too many days at the end of school years spent saying goodbye to teenagers I adored. I have the obligatory box of cards and notes from parents and students that I like to re-read sometimes…reminding myself of the many lives that passed near mine and what a gift it was to learn from them in the process. I think teachers who love teenagers and love teaching those teenagers also see teens for who and what they are — all the glorious potential and deficits. And we love them anyway.
I, of course, watched David McCullough Jr’s commencement address at Wellesley High School last week where he infamously told the graduates that they were “not special”. It has caused quite a brouhaha. Folks either applaud his honesty or grumble loudly over his inappropriateness. And while I agree with what he says (watch the whole thing and watch how the “special” comments scaffold his ultimate message), the specialness and lack of such things is not why I’ve watched his speech several times.
I watched it again because of his advice to the graduates about living their lives.
“Now, before you dash off and get your YOLO tattoo, let me point out the illogic of that trendy little expression–because you can and should live not merely once, but every day of your life. Rather than You Only Live Once, it should be You Live Only Once… but because YLOO doesn’t have the same ring, we shrug and decide it doesn’t matter.” ~ David McCullough Jr.
And this is what stuck with me. We are living only once; rather than we aren’t special at age 18 and leaving high school for whatever greener pastures we hope to find out there.
Because at nearly 44, I know that I’m no more special than any of the other 7 billion folks on this planet. Any specialness I might have is attributed to me purely by the lives I have touched while living, this one time.
When we spout “You only live once” we do so as an explanation of our behavior or actions that might seem dangerous, risky, stupid, fearless. I too have tossed an “you only live once” over my shoulder as I embarked upon some feat more reckless than thoughtful. It was my way of bolstering my courage.
You only live once.
Yes. We do only live but this one time. Even if we are reincarnated, we only live this life, with its relationships and experiences, once.
But McCullough is so right. The point of living isn’t to do only what makes us tremble. The point is to tremble over all the living we do.
You live only once.
What makes each of us special, and not only to the small group of friends and family who loves us, is living an extraordinary life.
An extraordinary life.
Now that is a gift I hope each of my children receives and not just when they wear their cap and gowns, but every day. Biggest, Middlest, and Littlest, may you find the extraordinary hidden within the ordinary, waiting for an ordinary person to recognize the extraordinary and in doing so, make the world more special.