Why My Favorite Character in The Breakfast Club Is the Janitor

in the AARP Arrow

It really wasn’t all too ago that I strongly identified with the main characters in John Hughes’ The Breakfast Club—not just two or three, but all. I saw in each what I wanted to see, depending upon my mood. Not only as a stand-in for myself but also as potential friends.

As with all things teenage, it oscillated wildly:

There was John Bender, with his fingerless, leather gloves, the crazy one I might call at midnight while the rest of my suburban friends were sleeping, someone who’d have no trouble meeting me within minutes down by the electrical towers, bringing with him a few cans of beer. He’s smoke a reefer, I’d refrain. But we’d talk about Pink Floyd’s “Animals” and our mutual hatred for all things authority.

I saw in the arty, dandruff-prone character Allison Reynolds a friend with whom I could complain about the world for a spell and then light patchouli incense sticks in her bedroom. I’d tell her of my own artistic dreams, to one day write for a living. She’d quietly give me a look of approval and a head nod: Hey, anything is possible with people who think as differently as us, right?

We all need at least one friend nerdier than our own nerdy selves, and Brian Johnson would have been the one for me, a kid I’d feel free to geek it out with over comedy and magic. We’d laugh while eating peanut-butter-and-jelly-sandwiches (with the crust cut off) and I’d nod my head in agreement while he babbled on endlessly about fantasy board games and novels featuring dragons. I would have little interest in hearing about such things, but that’s okay. Who else would I have to watch Monty Python with?

The rich, beautiful girl, Claire Standish, would have been the classmate I would have known since birth, the stunning, unobtainable daughter of my parents’ best friends. She really was a sweet kid, if a little too obsessed with this exotic new craze called “sushi.” There wouldn’t be much we’d share in common, but there might be a kiss between us in the future. One can always dream.

The jock Andrew Clark would’ve been the pal I’d known going all the way back to Little League, the one always up for shagging fly balls, no matter the time of day or season, the pal with the extra large television to watch football, the one who was beloved by my father for having an arm like a “rifle.” He’d be prone to overly aggressive hugs and other sportsman like “stunts” but, beneath it all, he was a pretty good kid, whose very obtainable dream would have been to teach high school gym and then hit the local sports bar on Friday nights. I’d have no doubt he’d achieve it.

I liked them all. I saw each as I wanted to see them: as five separate likeable, if damaged entities. But that, if fused under great pressure, would form (almost diamond-like) the combination of everything I was looking for in a friend.

That was then. This is now. While recently rewatching Breakfast Club with my 13-year-old daughter, I could only look on with horror—horror might be too strong a word, I suppose, but perhaps a fair amount of bewilderment. I wondered: These were the jerks I liked and admired and identified with so much? “This was the movie you liked so much?” my daughter asked, attention immediately reverting back to her iPad. “This is the movie you had the poster of in your bedroom?!”

Her comments grated on me as they often do when she’s side-talking to me while playing Minecraft. But the child had a point. It was hard to believe that these were the characters I once saw as clever, remarkable, artistic, bad-ass. This group? This genus of teens who wallow in all that delicious self-pity that rich, white suburban kids were entitled to sink into back in the 80s?

I shouldn’t limit my dislike to the five from Glenbrook High. The character of Duckie in Pretty in Pink, a scamp I once admired for his plucky devotion to sartorial creativity through zoot suit trousers and two watches, is a creature I now find more awful than any to be found on Walking Dead. Yes, the Duck Man works at a record store, but there’s really no need to jive around lip-synching to Otis Redding’s “Try a Little Tenderness.” Just play the original on the stereo and get behind the counter and look glum. That’s your job.

Ferris Bueller is a bore and a sociopath whose idea of a magical adventure is to “borrow” a priceless car and drive it into the big city to visit an empty museum, take in a baseball game in the cheapest and worst seats, flash strange hand signals at the stock exchange, and then dance on the roof of a stranger’s car, lip-synching to “Twist and Shout” by the Beatles. What’s with all this lip-synching? Back in 1986, I saw this urban quest as quite possibly as ambitious as the one taken by ancient Greek gods on their way to Delphi. Now, I only see a rich suburbanite who travels into the city once a year, and then quickly retreats back to the comfort and supposed safety of the ‘burbs. Maybe not a bad idea. Try dancing on the top of a car in downtown Chicago in real life. Let’s see how that puckish maneuver ends.

It’s those who were once considered the movies’ villains that I now emphasize with the most. The middle-aged men and women who put up with the whininess, the laziness, the sheer awfulness of these not-fully-formed humans who thought themselves superior. These were the adult characters purportedly preventing our teen heroes from achieving all the fun they felt they so fully deserved. In reality, they deserved very little.

When I watch Home Alone now, my heart goes out not to Kevin, but to Peter and Kate, the exhausted parents. Mistakenly leaving behind a child is not going to win any parental awards, true, but the job really ain’t easy—especially when traveling. There’s also no denying that the little rascal really isn’t as cute or adorable as he might think. And what’s wrong with a life lesson? It might just be the very thing to set this feral creature back on the correct path. It’s mighty cute to sleep through an alarm clock at eight. At thirty-eight, not so cute.

When I now watch Pretty in Pink, it’s the alcoholic father struggling to find employment I feel the most pity for. Finding a new job mid-life can be excruciating. Who wouldn’t need a drink? Especially after listening to a daughter wax on endlessly about her unrequited love for a rich doof named “Blane”? We all need our vices. Hand the man a damned martini.

Out of all of them, though, the character I most closely identify with is Carl from The Breakfast Club, a janitor once king of the school, the former “Man of the Year,” now reduced to cleaning up the detritus of students who barely pay him the scarcest of attention. He’s a man who might have achieved all of his dreams if not for some unnamed source(s) of trouble(s). And yet he seems content enough with his current position, if a bit saddened. He’s seen life. He knows what it’s like out there. He just wants to do his job and get the hell home. Maybe have a nice meal with his wife. Perhaps watch a little TV. And then hit the ol’ bed at a reasonable hour. And then do it all over again the next day.

These mocking high school students will soon discover reality for themselves. Let ’em learn. That, to me, is a hero. Or at least someone who’s tethered to reality.

Carl is the man I’ve become: a bit grizzled, perpetually fatigued, yet fully aware that life’s childhood fantasies don’t always—in fact, very rarely—match the realities of what was once daydreamed as a teen.

I now see myself as I want to. Slow change may pull us apart but let’s not forget that, in the end, the realities of living a life, and not just imagining one, tend to pull us all together. In the end, we’re a lot more similar than we ever thought—no matter the roles we, or others, forced us into at seventeen.