Last night, almost 13 year old Benj went to his school’s first “Movie Night.” “Movie Night” is one of several evening activities in a new school initiative designed to create social opportunities and foster a sense of community for students who don’t socialize with other kids regularly or in typical ways. The choice for the inaugural Movie Night –Ferris Bueller’s Day Off– was somewhat surprising to me, as I’d always considered the movie to epitomize a kind of typical teen experience and perspective that Benj, a child on the autism spectrum, would never have or attain. As we drove Benj to his school, I thought about the poignancy of showing this particular movie to a group of children who struggle with making and sustaining peer relationships, telling and understanding jokes, coloring outside the lines: all the things Ferris Bueller himself does so effortlessly. I wondered how Benj would react to a film which in numerous ways represents the antithesis of his careful and considered, conscientious and cautious approach to life. Ferris Bueller celebrates close and conspiratorial friendship; its main character has a playful and ingenious, creative and rebellious approach to situations. I wasn’t at all sure how super-responsible, meticulous, and play-by-the-rules Benj would react to Ferris’s mischievous wiles and subversive energy. Ferris Bueller’s devil-may-care insouciance and rebellious stance towards authority might make Benj anxious or even indignant, I thought. He might, in fact, identify more with the rigid and repetitive economics teacher (“Bueller . . . Bueller . . . Bueller”) played so memorably by Ben Stein! But as it turns out, I was both underestimating Benj and oversimplifying the meaning and message of the film. And it took Benj, with all his charming frankness and clarity of perception, to remind me of the movie’s simple and universal lesson.
My fiance and I dropped a very excited, somewhat apprehensive Benj off at the school around 6:30, and when we came back to pick him up a few hours later, he was radiant. “It was *wonderful*, Mommy!” he cried, and then waxed rhapsodic about the “catchy” soundtrack, the “funny business” about the red Ferrari, and the “hilarious joking,” while also pointing out that because the movie was rated PG-13 and had several swear words, it was inappropriate for my nine year old son and nine year old stepdaughter to watch until they’re a little older.
On the way home, Benj called his father and spoke to him via speaker phone.
“Oh Hi Daddy! Daddy I loved the movie! It was so funny!”
“Isn’t it?!” his dad exclaimed, “and it has a very good spirit to it.”
Benj was nonplussed. “What do you mean? It’s not spiritual.”
“No, it’s not spiritual, but it has a great spirit, a good outlook on things,” his Dad clarified.
“Yes, I was actually thinking that,” Benj affirmed, “and I was thinking that I need to have that spirit more in my life.”
“Not by skipping school though,” his Dad laughed.
“Of course not,” Benj said. “I have to have that kind of *spirit* all the time, and that kind of fun- like museums and sports- on the weekends.”
Listening to Benj and his father’s loving exchange, I found myself inexplicably welling up with tears. I asked Benj if he was referring to the famous lines from the film– “something about life going so quickly, and needing to stop sometimes and appreciate it?” “Yes,” he replied. “Ferris tries to teach his friend Cameron about that.” In my parenting of Benj, I’ve typically been the Ferris to his Cameron, helping him take things less seriously, releasing him from anxiety, teaching him how to play and let go. But tonight I saw, in the way he surprised me, in the way he distilled an essential truth and gave voice to something crucially important, how he is also the Ferris to my Cameron.
I first saw Ferris Bueller with a gang of high school friends in the early summer of 1986 when it was initially released, and for me it’s always been associated with the intensity and ardent intimacy of my friendships as a child and teenager, with a thrilling sense of the responsibilities and rigors of school being relaxed, and with a feeling of essential freedom and joy. I remember thinking that I could never be like Ferris- I was both a very dutiful daughter of parents with clear and demanding expectations of me and a high-achieving student at a high-pressure school- but that in summertime, with my friends, out on our own at a movie theatre on 84th and Broadway, I could attain a version of the freedom and fun the film’s characters do. And I remember then and in the years since, coming away from the movie both exhilarated and moved, happy and wistful, in ways I couldn’t clearly articulate. When I was a high-performing high school, college, and graduate student getting lots of gold stars and dutifully jumping through hoops and then a professor in the English Departments at Yale and Vassar, Ferris Bueller had seemed to gesture towards a kind of impossible existence, a happy-go-lucky spirit and irreverence I could laugh along with but never really pursue or attain. It took having Benj- a child very different from what I’d imagined, a child who upended every expectation I’d had about parenting- to free me from the need to meet others’ expectations and from the constricting demands of a life path I had followed but hadn’t truly loved. Like Ferris, Benj has reminded me that sports, art, and our relationships with others are nourishing sources of renewal and happiness. And Benj has taught me how to exemplify in my own life what Ferris Bueller most essentially represents: a willingness to slow down, an ability to be grateful, a passionate appreciation of life in its moment-to-moment passing.
“Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.”
John Hughes, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Wise advice indeed, for me as a high school student on the fast track to “success” and now as a mother of children on the cusp of adolesence, for Benj, and for all of us.