Is Being “Special” a Responsibility?

Everyone is special.

That’s the message many students have learned over the last decade in supportive classrooms and home environments. That’s why for many a commencement speech that recently went viral was such a shock (and for some a breath of fresh air).  In her article “Should We Stop Telling Our Kids That They’re Special?” Erika Christakis responded to the speaker who told the graduating class: “You’re not special, you are not exceptional.”

Christakis points out that over the last three decades the number of teen pregnancies and high school dropouts have significantly lowered, which can partly be attributed to the “special” attention teens can get. Also, as the “one-size fits all” approach has proven to be ineffective, more students with learning disabilities are getting the help they need to succeed and stereotypes are wearing off as more girls, children of color, gay teens, and those with physical disabilities are given equal learning opportunities.

But does being special and having unique abilities give you a responsibility to do something with them? We can empower students by making them feel special to find a passion, finish high school, and apply to college, but we — and they — must also use their uniqueness to go beyond that. When an empowered student is out of class or becomes an autonomous grad, how can they use their “special” to contribute to the greater good?

In an abundant country full of individuals who were taught they are special, we must also teach that being compassionate, working hard, and looking beyond ourselves is how a special individual can make meaningful contributions. The commencement speaker may have had to be harsh to be heard, but his message is the reality: “You see, if everyone is special, then no one is. If everyone gets a trophy, trophies become meaningless. … We have of late, we Americans, to our detriment, come to love accolades more than genuine achievement.”

We all must be active participants in our lives who, if inspired by being special, have the desire to make others feel special too, whether through work, entrepreneurship, volunteerism, or donations. We must remember “special” can help motivate, but it can also overfeed the ego. How can your “special” help you achieve rather than receive?

“Should We Stop Telling Our Kids That They’re Special?” by Erika Christakis. 12 June 2012. Time. Accessed on 13 June 2012.

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