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June 11th, 2012
12:01 PM ET

Straight-talking commencement speech tells grads they're not special – Steve Perry explains why this is a good thing

During most graduation speeches, you expect to hear inspirational messages congratulating students on their accomplishments, preparing them for what is ahead as they go out into the greater world. But the graduation speaker at a Massachusetts High School had an unconventional and kind of unexpected message for his students this year.

"You're not special," English teacher David McCullough says. "Contrary to what your soccer trophy says, your glowing seventh grade report card... that nice Mr. Rogers and your batty aunt Sylvia, no matter how often your paternal caped crusader has swooped in to save you, you are nothing special."

Not exactly what students may want to hear as they go off into the world and start their lives. McCullough went on to tell the students all the coddling and praise they've become used to will not last.

This is a message that CNN education contributor says he loves, and has been a long time coming. He explains to Soledad and the Starting Point team why it's important for kids to realize their greatness is about what they will achieve, not about who they already are.

See the full transcript after the jump.


O'BRIEN: It brings us right to Steve Perry. Of course he's CNN's education contributor. Did you like his commencement address? You can see it online, by the way.



PERRY: It's essential, because we project too much time projecting our own insecurities onto our children. What the parents are doing is overcompensating for things they didn't get. They make rules like no dribble basketball or no score soccer so no one feels bad and any time someone feels bad, the world is supposed to stop to make them feel better.

What you know in life is there are two ways to make it. You can make a living or you can make a life, which is how you change lives. Too many people are making a living and not changing lives.

O'BRIEN: I agree. I absolutely positively agree with you on all of that. Is a graduation the place to have a tough love conversation? I think that's sort of a K-12 conversation. The last day when you're sending them out, you say they're not special?

PERRY: Absolutely, because what we're looking at is so many of them thing they did something amazing by graduating high school and getting into college. Welcome to the rest of the world, homey.


PERRY: We have to recognize more and more, you have to do more than show up to life. You have to have more game changes as opposed to fans.

ROLAND MARTIN, CNN POLITICAL CONTRIBUTOR: I think it's an amazing point Steve makes. We have this whole notion of American exceptionalism. We have folks walking around with an attitude, we're the best. You have to get there. You have to earn something. You have to take the time. I make the point. Colleges always say these are our graduates. Thurgood Marshall, Dr. King. Yes, but they got there after they graduated. Not what they did in life.

MARGARET HOOVER, CNN CONTRIBUTOR: This has nothing do with American exceptionalism. This southbound the trophy participation. He's talking about the millennial generation, the 30 and under who feel like they can get a trophy for showing up. What I love, though -


MARTIN: You make it a political issue.

HOOVER: You brought up the political issue, Roland?

MARTIN: That's what I speak to, this whole notion everybody's exceptional. I'm saying you earn it.

HOOVER: I agree. You've got to earn it.

O'BRIEN: Ultimately, Steve, what do you tell your students? You're a principal. What do you tell them in comments to your class?

PERRY: I tell them -

O'BRIEN: Is it like that or inspiration.

PERRY: I tell them that I love them, but I love them because of what they will do, not because of what they are. When we hold them to a higher expectation they will respond. We send our children off with the expectation that they will change other people's lives. Our theme at Capital Prep is social justice, to whom much is given much is expected. We've worked our behinds off to create a world-class education. That we gave to them. The rest of it they're going to have to earn.

O'BRIEN: See, that's inspirational.

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