I’m OK, you’re OK, but it’s a real blockhead who insists his child is exceptional

A Canadian educator, on the cutting edge of pedagogy, thought it would be a terrific idea to engage his students by screening a current-affairs film to his 10th grade class. The edgy video he selected was that of Mr. Luka Magnotta deftly at work butchering the corpse of his dear friend Mr. Jun Lin.

This led to a predictable outcome: Montreal’s answer to Mr. Chips was relieved of his duties, and will face a disciplinary committee at Cavelier-de-LaSalle High School.

Elsewhere in the world of secondary-school learning, an American high school teacher instigated a similar ruckus, and not for the reasons customary in his profession, which often include:

  • texting a student to suggest meeting up after class for a nice dinner and some cocktails;
  • attempting to motivate the football team by biting the head off a live bat, Ozzie-style;
  • neglecting to wear trousers to class, again;
  • offering during parent-teacher night to improve little Jason’s mediocre grades, in exchange for a modest sized rock of crack cocaine.

David McCullough Jr. committed a far more uncommon offense. The Wellesley, Mass. English teacher dared to reveal to a graduating class of Millennials his opinion that they are not exceptional — hurtful phrase, that — and now all heck seems to have busted loose.

It seems that, given the choice, parents might prefer to have their kiddies exposed to a snuff film than to have their illusions of grandiosity snuffed out.

This news item struck home. I spent some time this past weekend at a social event where a bright and bonny eight-year-old was encouraged to perform a song she had written in honor of her grandparents’ golden anniversary. I do like the child, although I couldn’t help but note that her lyrics failed to mention a syllable about grandma or grandpa, but did wax poetic about her pint-sized self — a self-referential propensity that is, admittedly, in keeping with the singer-songwriter tradition.

One rhyming stanza that stood out concerned her desire to be on the cover of a magazine, and ride in a limousine. These ambitions were reeled off so perfectly that I figured they must have been appropriated from Fiddy-Cent, or Flo Rida, or every other dub poet with a devoted following among the pre-pubescent demographic. The small audience of family members wildly applauded the recital, and so did I, although only after I managed to tamp down the rising tetchiness with a measure of claret.

Mr. McCullough was able to articulate some of my unease during his commencement audience at Wellesley High. His remarks, which have become a YouTube sensation, are  gentle, tolerant, and supportive, and never once invoke unnecessary, though convenient, phrases, such as “you arrogant little turds.”

That is why Mr. McCullough is ideally suited to the task of disabusing young minds of their self-aggrandizing tendencies, and is less temperamentally inclined toward a faculty position at the U.S Marines drill instructor at Parris Island, South Carolina.

Jack, patiently explaining to a young American that he is not exceptional

As depicted in the classic 1957 Jack Webb film, “The D.I.,” the essential USMC inculcation style doesn’t consider the aspect of potentially bruised feelings on the part of recruits. Back in Webb’s day, the barked instructions tilted toward the regrettably homophobic —  “I’ll personally cut the lace off his panties and ship him out!” — but several generations later, the DI phrase-book appears no less colorful.

A contemporary Facebook fan page celebrates Drill Instructor Insults, and several are true connoisseur treasures, beginning with the statement that greets visitors: I WILL UNSCREW YOUR HEAD AND SHIT DOWN YOUR NECK. (A spirited contribution from Sgt. John E. Crouch [ret.] also made me giggle: “You’re the reason God made bayonets; you are unworthy of a five-cent bullet.”)

Educator McCullough raised national eyebrows with his wise entreaties to the oblivious Bay State young’uns, but you can just imagine what might have occurred if he employed the stern manner of Sgt. Crouch. A parent might well object that his precious Madison or Courtney or Jamil was made to feel disrespected after being repeatedly addressed by the commencement speaker as “Maggot.” Offended Tweets would take wing. Apologies would be demanded.

But, listen here, keeds. The truth of the matter is that your parents are wrong to keep you cosseted. Mr. McCullough and Sgt. Crouch are correct in encouraging you to shake off the blinkers and wise-up. (The kinky Canuck educator who showed his class the slasher movie is just plain nuts, so let’s leave him or her out of this.)

You see, keeds, you need to understand an essential fact. This planet has not one, but two dimensions.

There is the world you inhabit in your prosperous subdivision in somewhere such as, say, Wellesley, Mass., where your mommy and daddy will enable and protect you, your teachers, coaches and therapist will all reassure you, and you will never need to question for a second whether you are loved, or exceptional.

And then there is the real world. That’s the place where the mean people live: cruel bosses, angry dry-cleaners, rude shoppers in the Costco check-out line, vicious tax inspectors, and on and on (not to mention the occasional footloose homicidal maniac with a plastic-surgery fetish, although these are fortunately rare.)

You’ll recognize these disagreeable people instantly. They will be the ones offended by your smug obliviousness, who will be screaming about how they want to punch out your lights.

You would be opening up yourself for a lifetime of pain if you confuse your comfortable, insulated world with the real world.

My advice on how to handle this dichotomy is simple: Listen to Mr. McCullough, and never use the term “exceptionally,” or “exceptional,” or worst of all, “exceptionalism” when describing yourself, your chums, or your country. Although this recommendation may not apply to everyone. One person who has earned the right to use that term is Mr. McCullough’s Montreal colleague, the teacher who introduced snuff films into the scholastic curriculum.

Now, there is someone exceptional. As in, “You’re exceptionally fired.”

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