Pop culture–seventies and eighties division–lost another icon yesterday. John Hughes, whose films–from Ferris Bueller's Day Off to Pretty in Pink to The Breakfast Club–really shed a certain light upon the melancholy and adventures and kinship of adolescents, died.
Of all the things I read late last night and early this morning remembering Hughes, I was most moved by Alison Bryne Fields' piece posted to her blog, We'll Know When We Get There. She begins by describing writing a fan letter to Hughes while she was babysitting one evening (after having seen The Breakfast Club). What she got back was a form letter along with some Breakfast Club stickers, and she was "irate." Here's an excerpt:
"I wrote back to John, explaining in no uncertain terms that, excuse me, I just poured my fucking heart out to you and YOU SENT ME A FORM LETTER.
That was just not going to fly.
He wrote back.
'This is not a form letter. The other one was. Sorry. Lots of requests. You know what I mean. I did sign it.'
He wrote back and told me that he was sorry, that he liked my letter and that it meant a great deal to him. He loved knowing that his words and images resonated with me and people my age. He told me he would say hi to everyone on my behalf.
'No, I really will. Judd will be pleased you think he's sexy. I don't.'
I asked him if he would be my pen pal.
He said yes."
Read her post to learn the rest of what happened, because I could not do the piece justice in a recap.
Fields' story moved me most for two reasons, which are, I guess, not unrelated to one another. First, I am a big believer in written correspondence. As I wrote a year or so ago for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, regardless of the fact that email is a "greener" way to correspond, I can't let go of–don't want to, either–the physical entity of letter and postcard writing (although, and those who used to receive much more snail mail from me than they do now would vouch for this, with each child, most especially this fourth one, I've slipped a little further from being a faithful physical mail correspondent, just because life is so very busy). In the essay, I wrote that while email is great, "it can't provide the welcome surprise of a piece of actual mail, and the special intimacy that comes when pen meets paper." There are certain things that I want to say to someone in a way that's not electronic (especially a condolence note; I want to take the time to share my clumsy words as a tangible offering). As a child, I wrote a couple of famous people and received notes back, a couple of times, as Fields experienced, I got a pen pal out of the deal. When I was five or six, I began a correspondence with Miss Jean of Hodgepodge Lodge, a PBS television series for children. I really cannot remember why I wrote her, beyond the fact that I just loved her show. I cannot remember what she and i wrote about. I still have a corn husk doll that she sent me for my seventh birthday, though. I think it's a treasure because the gift was about so much more than corn husk dolls; it was a grown person, not from my immediate orbit, a famous person I respected even, caring about me. When I was a little older, I had a correspondence going with an ABC news reporter, Pierre Sallinger. I really, truly cannot remember why I wrote or how our exchanges came to pass. Again, the idea that a grown and famous person cared about what I thought made me feel really good about myself (something I needed; I think all kids do, in fact).
The second reason Fields' story was so moving is less about fame or snail mail correspondence, but about adults taking a special interest in kids not their own. I had forms of the mentorship relationship–more than my fair share, really–over the course of childhood and adolescence (and early adulthood, too). I found great support from the teacher who ran our elementary school's poetry program and from the parent of a deaf child in the school who helped me find sign language lessons to the teachers at the local school for the deaf in Philadelphia who helped me learn to assist the children at the school to the owner of the crafts store I worked at during high school to two women who ran the Civil Liberties and Public Policy Program at Hampshire College (first, when I was a student, Janet Gallagher; next, during my twenties, when I was en employee, Marlene Fried–both still critical connections for me). Now that I'm a parent, I feel even more strongly about the incredibly valuable role mentors have in children's (read, my children's) lives.
I'm defining that word, mentor, broadly here, so that it includes a range of experiences children can have with adults, from the parents at a beloved "home away from home" (the best friend's family, for example) to a coach or tutor or teacher or parent of a child being babysat for or adult providiing an internship or job. When children are babies and parents have a hard time letting go emotionally, they also wish (and on some level, believe) that if they try hard enough, they can meet their children's needs, especially emotional ones. At some point (if the parents and children are fortunate), a different point for each parent, she or he realizes that, in fact, parents cannot meet their children's every need (eureka). At first, after this realization took hold in a conscious way, I was merely grateful for the people that organically had become mentors. I thought (and continue to feel) these people are gifts in our lives. Each child elicits his or her champions naturally, after all. There are certain people I have always had a soft spot reserved for, and this is true for my kids: they each have adults in their lives who kind of just "have it" for one or the other most especially (not to be too flip here, but for one son, this cadre includes a few stoners, and sometimes I wonder whether it's a sign that I should brace myself for a colorful adolescence). While it's probably not a type of relationship that can really successfully be forced, I do believe you can–as a parent, and what's more as an adult coming in contact with younger people–cultivate an awareness about mentorship's magic. Sometimes, you can take advantage. The first time I really decided to lean upon that type of relationship was when my eldest son was in sixth grade. Ezekiel was having a very hard afternoon and we were in one of those downward spirals together in which I was unable to lift him up from his miserable space and in which he was very much able to pull me into his happiness-sucking vortex. He needed a good cry. And, because it wasn't happening with me–just obstinance and histrionics–I knew the good cry wouldn't happen with me, just more obstinance and histrionics. It was time for his piano lesson and he was in rough shape, not at all eager to go, not in the slightest ready to play the piano. But he loves Ed Rosser (known to those in downtown Northampton as the man who plays the piano on wheels) and Ed appreciates him. What I thought would happen that afternoon did, to the nanosecond, which was this: I dragged Ezekiel to his lesson where, the moment I left the room, he burst into tears. Forty-five minutes later, Ezekiel was calmer and Ed proved the theory–that parents alone cannot be their children's sole nurturers–true. Since then, I've started to consider those nurturers or mentors more carefully (and with that much more gratitude).
John Hughes offered that to Alison Fields. And somehow, it's her description of their relationship–and all it implies about the way Hughes related to the world around him and how he parented his sons–that resonated, and even put his films into context.