talking with david mccullough, jr., in advance of "an evening for inspired leaders"

An Evening of Inspired Leaders – that’s what Mass Poetry offers as a fund raiser for several of our vital activities in the coming year. The array of leaders is sparkling and includes, among a dozen others, Diane Patrick, former Massachusetts First Lady; Robert Pinsky, U.S. poet laureate who founded Favorite Poem series; Tom Ashbrook, radio host for NPR’s “On Point;” Ed Davis, former Boston Police Commissioner; and the David McCulloughs, both Sr. and Jr.

We had the opportunity to speak with David McCullough, Jr., about his love for poetry. He made waves three years ago in the social media world when his Wellesley High School commencement address went viral on YouTube, and that short, wonderfully funny, and inspiring address has now been heard by several million people. It also resulted in a book—You Are Not Special—that Publisher’s Weekly describes this way:

“... McCullough scores an A+ with this volume for teens and parents. Rich in literary references and poetic in cadence, the author ... offers plenty of hilarious and pointed comments on teens and today’s society. ”

Without giving away what he plans to read at the Huntington Theater presentation, he talks about the first poems he fell in love with.  The first he mentions is “The Cremation of Same McGee.” I remember when I was six or seven, my father would recite it, and I loved it for its exotic location, its humor and it adventure. It was fun to hear and I loved what it said about the possibilities of poetry.” He begins to recite the first lines:

There are strange things done in the midnight sun

      By the men who moil for gold;

“My father is a man of great enthusiasms, and I loved his pleasure in the poem. I loved and admired my father so that I liked what he liked.”

But “The Cremation . . .” wasn’t the only poem McCullough enjoyed from his childhood. Huge Harold by Bill Peet was another favorite. “”I liked to look at the pictures as my mother read the book aloud:

"When Harold the rabbit was tiny and small
his feet started growing and that's about all.
'Oh Gracious!' his mother exclaimed in surprise.
'They're two times too big for a rabbit your size!'
'That's a sign', said his father, 'he'll grow to great height.'
And Father's prediction turned out to be right."

“I’ve shared both those poems with my children when they were young.”

In school the first poem McCullough remembers loving was a poem Mrs. Marbach introduced in sixth grade. The poem was Robert Frost’s “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” “It was the first poem,” McCullough says, “that I understood completely on my own without the teacher explaining it, and I remember memorizing it.”

Besides Robert Service, Bill Peet, and Robert Frost, McCullough is a fan of Walt Whitman—especially “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”—Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, Robert Herrick , Philip Larkin, Anne Bradstreet, Shakespeare’s sonnets, Tennyson, “Invictus.” and on and on.

As an English teacher at Wellesley High School, poetry is very much a part of his life. “I love reading and teaching. Sometimes students resist poetry at first, so you have to win them over.” But McCullough relishes the times that it happens. “Last week we were reading Emily Dickinson, and I loved seeing their faces light up as the poems reached them.”

McCullough reminisces about his own youth. “Folk singers also brought me to poetry. I admired James Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel, and, of course, Bob Dylan. I used to love to read the lyrics of songs on the back of albums.”

We have to wait to see what David McCullough, Jr. reads December 7 at the Inspired Leaders event, but his enthusiasm for poetry leads him to support the efforts of Mass Poetry. All proceeds from the fundraiser support Mass Poetry’s many programs, including

  • PoeTry on the MBTA, which replaces ads with poems

  • Student Days of Poetry, where we reach over 6,000 students annually, mostly in underserved schools

  • Common Threads, a community reading program that reaches all across the state

  • Massachusetts Poetry Festival, the second largest poetry festival in the U.S., which brings together thousands of poetry lovers every year.

With your support, we’ll sponsor even more programs in the coming year. Reserve your tickets here.

A graduate of Lafayette College and the Bread Loaf School of English, David McCullough, Jr. taught for sixteen years at Punahou School in Honolulu, and since 2002 at Wellesley High School near Boston.  His 2012 commencement speech at the latter quickly went viral and became something of an international sensation.  In April of 2014 he published the bestselling You Are Not Special and Other Encouragements, an elaboration on the speech in book form for teenagers and anyone with an interest in them—which has been published in Asia and Europe as well.  He has written for The Boston Globe, Newsweek and other publications, and appeared on CBS, NBC, CNN, Fox, PBS and NPR.  Son of the acclaimed historian, McCullough lives with his wife Janice and their four children in Sudbury, Massachusetts.