John Hughes [RIP], "High School Harrys", the Tragedy of American Schooling and our Wider Priorities

09/16/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Pye Ian Corporate strategic planning consultant


Vernon and Carl are sitting and talking.

What did you want to be when you
were young?

When I was a kid, I wanted to be
John Lennon...

Carl don't be a goof! I'm trying
to make a serious point here...I've
been teaching, for twenty two years,
and each year...these kids get more
and more arrogant.

Aw bull s#!+, man. Come on Vern,
the kids haven't changed, you have!
You took a teaching position, 'cause
you thought it'd be fun, right?
Thought you could have summer
vacations off...and then you found
out it was actually work...and that
really bummed you out.

These kids turned on me...they think
I'm a big f#%*in' joke...

Come on...listen Vern, if you were
sixteen, what would you think of
you, huh?

Hey...Carl, you think I give one
rat's @$$ what these kids think of

Yes I do...

You think about this...when you get
old, these kids; when I get old,
they're gonna be runnin' the country.


Now this is the thought that wakes
me up in the middle of the night...
That when I get older, these kids
are gonna take care of me...

I wouldn't count on it...

- The Breakfast Club, © 1985, written and directed by John Hughes [emphases added]

Like so many others of my generation, upon hearing about the recent passing of John Hughes, I thought back immediately to his unique work, foremost in my mind being the seminal film cited above. Twenty-four years ago, that film touched a raw nerve among students, parents and school staff. Little wonder that, so many years later, the film is considered by many of my generation as "our version of The Graduate." Back then it served, however briefly, as a sort of psychic pressure valve in our seemingly perfect, Lilliputian, Reagan-era suburban existence, and that well-resourced high school setting in Illinois could've doubled for any proud, genteel public school in America. I recalled how classmates and many of our teachers would see the film multiple weekends in a row in the first semester of that school year, almost as a reassuring solace away from the true emotional meat-grinder that was -- and continues to be -- our public school system. The film spoke truth to power in many ways.

Although the film is mostly remembered for the fine performances given by the core cast that portrayed five students sharing a Saturday detention hall, the one key adult role has, with time, proven to be just as poignant and socially relevant. Specifically, the role of Principal Vernon, played brilliantly by the late Paul Gleason, was a spot-on depiction of so many frustrated, burned out, resentful and subsequently outright oppressive administrators/staff who litter the national landscape of our increasingly debilitated public schools. Often they are precisely what Hughes depicted them as above -- hard working yet increasingly disillusioned, irate and sometimes, yes, paranoid folk who tend to feel like they are "herding cats" (to quote a respected former teacher I know who taught for over 30 years and recently retired) for 10 hours a day rather than teaching or motivating. With each year their coarseness grows, and they become the very caricatures they themselves ridiculed in their own teen years. In the process, they alienate already confused, distracted and hyper-hormonal kids, many of whom lack stable family lives, and the rinse-and-repeat cycle continues through generations.

A good friend who dealt with many public school administrators while officiating high school sports and substitute teaching keenly labeled this particular contingent as the "High School Harrys". You know the type: The blowhards who are self-perceived masters of their own domains while annoying just about everyone else and tormenting kids who they think they're guiding towards "success" in life. The "Glory Days" types who tend to subconsciously attempt to relive their B.M/W.O.C. statuses of yesteryear by channeling their own "Great Santini"-like parents and past mentors in hammering so-called discipline into their pupils. The recyclers of trite, numbing adolescent stereotypes such as those Hughes caricatured and effectively punctured in said film. For every great, inspiring teacher, coach or administrator, there might be three to five "Harrys", serving as ongoing testaments to the accurate claim that "high school actually never ends."


Yet, that said, and with some perspective, can one ultimately blame them? With crowded classrooms, shrinking district and state education budgets, rising competition for attention spans from media, and constricting, rushed federal performance standards under skewed, increasingly irrelevant curricula (packed with odd, opaque Foundation-funded textbooks and excessive standardized testing), it's a wonder that any public school instructor or administrator makes it through even one school year. As seasoned instructors and now visionary authors such as John Taylor Gatto, Sir Ken Robinson, Grace Llewellyn and others have attested, the conveyor belt-like settings and mandates of our schools -- operating for the most part under what were originally decades-old Prussian imported paradigms for mass conformity more so than instruction, per se -- tend to crush genuine curiosity and creativity in their pupils and staff while aiming at churning out future corporate-compliant producers and consumers. Such has certainly been the educational fate of the so-called -- and increasingly dissipating -- American middle-class since the 19th Century, although it's not necessarily limited to the middle-class.

Little to no emphasis is placed on harnessing genuine critical thought in our K through 12 public schools. Music, philosophy, viable history and civics (which doesn't omit critical monetary aspects of our nation's past and present), comparative literature, early stage foreign language instruction, and innovation-sparking approaches to the natural sciences and mathematics are skipped over for standardized test-fodder material. Additionally, mature social discourse, self-reflection and cognitive empathy -- the very kind Hughes demonstrated with the dialogue of said film, after bearing his soul by writing it -- are rendered irrelevant. Aside from sports, little to nothing is initiatory; no genuine rights of passage, forcing some segments of our youth to just resort to gang life. Just clock in, clock out, get your diploma and get out there and be "productive." Contribute to the GDP, as well as to your future 401(k)s. No wonder drop-out rates are so high, binge drinking and prescription meds are both on the rise (among both kids and adults), and the disenthralled "Harrys" of the world continue to multiply with age and experience.

Unfortunately, some would be tempted to blame the above on class issues. They'd say:

No wonder The One Percent [to quote filmmaker Jamie Johnson] in this country and those who ardently aspire to join it practically fistfight to get their kids into the Choates, Kents, Brownings, Le Lycée Francaises, et al. from Manhattan to La Jolla to Pacific Heights to Kenilworth. These parents start such hardcore competition for the sake of their children from the pre-school years. Without excessively isolating their children from the rest of society, they do so nonetheless due partly to wanting to avoid the kind of people and environments that could damage their children's self esteem during such pivotal stages of development.

Yet private schools have their share of problems as well. They have their versions of "Harrys", too, albeit better paid ones who retain more graduate degrees. No, this is a wider problem that's reflective of our society's priorities as a whole. We are collectively losing the plot.

In a key scene of the film, the character of Allison, obviously conveying the sensibility of Hughes himself (who scoffed at the role of schools in nurturing creativity), concludes: "It's unavoidable, it just happens....When you grow up, your heart dies." She was the quirky "basketcase" of the film, and Hughes was more filmmaker than social critic, but both nailed something that I and some astute friends are starting to realize when we step away from our Blackberries, conference calls, staff meetings and general daily routines:

That we ourselves, now in our late 30s and early 40s, are slipping. We are relegating much of our innate creativity and idealism to the mental equivalent of Vernon's closet, where he threw Bender into for solitary confinement. We are racing to remain "relevant" to those we admire and wish to emulate socially, despite dissipating returns, just like Claire and Andrew did with respect to their circle of friends in the film. We are growing increasingly cynical, what with the stakes for acceptance having risen from mere peer cliques and student clubs to those of our very subsistence - and that's during "good" economic times. With the current pandemic economic crisis that's challenging our preconceived notions of "success" -- the very success we're presumably entitled to for following the school and corporate syllabuses prescribed to us since adolescence -- those conditioned anxieties are just exacerbating.

Hell, some of us are even turning into our own versions of "Harrys".

It need not be that way.

You and I are not our degrees, our careers, our cars, home values, class designations, political affiliations or net worths. I sense Hughes might've agreed.