John Vasconcellos could be forgiven for having a migraine right now. As a longtime California legislator, he was the driving force behind the state’s Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem and Personal and Social Responsibility.

That group’s 1989 report helped persuade schools nationwide to nurture their students’ self-esteem as a way of eliminating social problems and academic failure. Yet for the past few days, the loud accolades have gone to a Massachusetts English teacher whose speech to graduating high school students dumped on all that carefully cultivated self-worth. “You are not special,” David McCullough Jr. told the students — in hearing range of their parents, no less. “You are not exceptional.”

And the Class of 2012 applauded. Many of the students in affluent Wellesley, Mass., appreciated the bald honesty and overdue dose of reality.

The speech was not all about running down its audience. McCullough emphasized that special is as special does, that children can earn greatness rather than merely expect it. Parents love their kids for their very existence. That’s a parent’s job.

The Wellesley High graduates might not be special, but they aren’t stupid, either. They know the current economy isn’t tossing a shining future into their laps.

Here was someone to give voice to that sneaking suspicion. When they encounter their first low grade in college, or an incompatible roommate, maybe they’ll cope instead of calling in Mom. If so, they’ll have learned something worthwhile on commencement day.