Andrew McCarthy shines the brightest among my celebrity sightings in New York. He and a female companion sat so close to myself and a cousin in a tiny wine bar in my neighborhood they practically shared our bottle of wine and plate of cheese. My cousin and I were totally gaga, since McCarthy’s various personas on the big screen, as well as those of his leading ladies (Molly Ringwald and Ally Sheedy in particular), were practically us in high school: geeky, situationally popular, anxious about grades and prom dates, separating from our parents but with no clear sense of where or with whom to reconnect, playing that Simple Minds song (might I suggest you click on that link and listen while you read on?) ad nauseum on our Sony walkmen.  

Director John Hughes, who died yesterday, was behind that phenomenon. And while it may seem like a stretch, since neither faith nor religious identity are flies in the ointment of Hughes’ characters, those of us whose vocations involve ongoing encounters with teenagers and young adults might do well to follow some his cues. His films, particularly those produced in the mid-80s, remind us of obvious things that we ought not forget about those caught in the pressure cooking years between childhood and adulthood. In fact, Hughes affirms a few things I learned last week during a week-long workshop on pedagogy run by the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off  (1986): Young people, particularly college students, want to take ownership of their learning. Like Ferris, they don’t want to be passive receptors of knowledge but active participants in creating knowledge that has significance in their lives. Granted, not every class can be like Chicago’s German American Day parade, but we should work hard to meet students where their passions, desires and curiosities are leading them. Doing so means taking the day off from business as usual in our various ministries, handing over the wheel of the Ferrari, and enjoying the ride. Just fasten your seat belt.

The Breakfast Club(1985): Living up to expectations—from peers, from parents, peers, coaches, teachers—landed the popular girl, the weirdo, the geek, the jock and the rebel in detention. Ironically, their coerced time together in the library provided safe space for conversation and clarification of thought without which these otherwise disparate characters would not have discovered commonalities and resources to resist the pressures that dehumanized them. Barbara Walvoord discovered something similar in her extensive study of undergraduate introductory courses in religion or theology. Professors who make space in and outside of the classroom for care, conversation and clarity are successful in bridging the gap between their expectations of students, and students’ expectations of them. Perhaps more importantly, they presented faith or religion as a resource for carving out a strong sense of self.

Sixteen Candles (1984): “That’s why they’re called crushes,” Samantha Baker’s dad explains in a moment of adult clarity and compassion that is rare in Hughes films. “If they didn’t hurt so much we’d call them something else.” More than just a tale of a teenage crush, this film is about trying to choose an authentic way of relating to the opposite sex from a menu of really inauthentic offerings. What Hughes implicitly points to as missing from this complicated selection process is also missing today, according to Donna Freitas’s Sex and the Soul, which examines the collegiate “hook up” culture. We need much more meaningful adult presence that, like Sam’s tentative father, listens deeply to the experiences of young adults before jumping to a list of dos and more often then not in Catholic culture an even longer list of don’ts.

Pretty in Pink (1986): In the quest for a prom date who will be more than just any prom date, another adolescent search fraught with peril (at least it was for me), plucky Andy Walsh finds her voice—ultimately expressed in the prom gown she makes herself with materials provided from unexpected places. Hughes reminds us that adolescents seek to be heard, and do not always use words or words that we would like them to use. We’ve got to be attentive to the creative and even prophetic ways they express themselves.

Some Kind of Wonderful (1987): The power of privilege—economic, cultural, sexual—and the use and misuse of teenage social capital is a recurring theme in many of Hughes’ films. Perhaps even more than the characters in this film, young people today have to navigate the tensions on all both sides of all sorts of tracks which seem to be even more divisive today than they were 20 years ago: those related to gender, political and religious ideology, class, and race (a theme that I wish Hughes had taken on). Taking responsibility for privilege so that we might use it wisely involves understanding the facets of our particular contexts and, like Hughes’ characters, owning them (and all of the baggage that comes with them) rather than simply rejecting them. Young people, and even the adults in their lives, cannot do this alone.

                So a recurring theme here: Don’t you forget about me! But try to remember me as I am, and not only as you want me to be.

                Comments

                Anonymous | 8/8/2009 - 9:12am
                You left Hughes best film, Wierd Science, of your list!
                Anonymous | 8/8/2009 - 12:05am
                While I loved (and still love) Hughes' films, I have to agree with commentor J. Yoon.  Hughes' representation of minorities leaves a great deal to be desired.  He regularly featured only white teenagers of priviliege and rarely a person of color.  When he did it was usually a pretty viscious stereotype.  Hughes always reminded me of Woody Allen in this perspective.
                While often myopic in their world views, Hughes' films did offer a consistent perspective on teens that rings somewhat universal-the struggle for autonomy and the fear that autonomy will bring.  I always found that scene in 16 Candles a rare gem of adult clarity as well, the same with the Annie Potts character in Pretty in Pink. 
                His death did feel a bit like the final nail in my youth's coffin.
                Anonymous | 8/7/2009 - 4:35pm
                From another college religion professor:
                This is a great reminder that not so much has changed since the 80s. Maybe our students would disagree with that statement, but I think John Hughes' movies should be required watching for high school and college teachers, especially religion teachers. And it might even be educational for us teachers to assign one of those films to our students and ask them to reflect on which aspects of those teenagers' lives (besides the laughable hairstyles and fashions) are different from theirs, and which seem familiar. We'd all rather forget what it was like to be an adolescent, but as O'Connell reminds us, we're not going to be effective at our jobs if we don't remember where our students are coming from.
                Anonymous | 8/7/2009 - 3:58pm
                Ferris Bueller's Day Off is one of my favorite films but I can never forgive Hughes for Sixteen Candles. This quote says it better than I can:

                AsianWeek columnist Phil Chung wrote in 2005:

                But if you're Asian, and especially if you're Asian and male, Sixteen Candles may well be the movie that made your childhood a living hell.

                For those not familiar with the film, I give you the three words that traumatized a whole generation of Asian American men: Long Duk Dong.


                Using racial caricatures as a cheap tool for laughs diminishes the artistry of his films.