Movie review: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off

I bought the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off for one reason: the movie celebrates the city of Chicago. Other members of my family do not approve—not that they don’t love Chicago, but because they are involved in education. The depiction of high school, and especially of teachers and administrators, in the movie is insulting, no doubt. All the same, the movie is widely regarded as a reminder to enjoy life, to seize the day, and to make one’s life worth living.

Like many other John Hughes movies, Ferris Bueller involves high school students who are confronted with an adult world that they neither understand nor respect. Set in the 1980s (the time period in which these movies were made), Hughes’ work can be regarded as commentary upon the Baby Boomers, a generation that questioned authority and made their own rules in the 1960s, only to become every bit as rigid and authoritarian when they rose to positions of power. The youngsters in Hughes’ stories are not taking to the streets to protest, nor are they seeking Flower Power. In many ways they are conformists, even though they quietly resent the lives they are forced to live. Generally wealthy, well-dressed, even pampered, they lack a loving connection to their parents. As a result, they form their own tribal culture which grants them an identity which comes from themselves and not from the adults who make all the rules.

Ferris Bueller is supposed to be a likeable character. Even the school secretary reports that most students in the school like and admire Ferris—“They say he’s a righteous dude.” But Ferris is dishonest, manipulative, conniving, self-centered, and smug. Some reviewers have labeled him a psychopath. He breaks into the school’s computer system and changes his attendance record—probably also his grades, although that is not shown. He sets up an elaborate system of props and sound effects to cover his absence from his bedroom, should anyone check on him. He faces the camera and speaks to the audience (which is hardly new or clever; Woody Allen did it earlier, and far better, in Annie Hall). Ferris gives instructions about how to deceive one’s parents and be excused from school due to illness. Ferris’ sister Jeannie is not fooled by his ruse, and neither is the school principal. But the movie’s script demands that Ferris succeed at everything he tries. He is a prankster like Till Eulenspiegel; and, as with Till, the audience is expected to be on the side of Ferris Bueller.

Ferris has a friend, Cameron, who is also missing school due to illness. Ferris decides that Cameron’s illnesses are psychosomatic, a result of neglect from Cameron’s parents. Besides, Ferris does not have a car and Cameron does. In short order, Ferris browbeats Cameron into getting out of bed and getting dressed and driving to the Bueller house. He then forces Cameron to pose as the father of Ferris’ girlfriend Sloane, getting her released from school through the phony news of the death of a grandmother. Still manipulating Cameron, Ferris gets access to the prized possession of Cameron’s father, an expensive sportscar. With that vehicle, they escape into the city to enjoy a baseball game at Wrigley Field, lunch at a fancy restaurant, a German heritage parade, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Meanwhile, the school principal is determined to catch Ferris playing hooky. In a series of cartoonish events, Mr. Rooney attempts to visit the Bueller house, only to be struck by misfortune after misfortune. He is like Wile E. Coyote trying to catch the Roadrunner, except this time the Roadrunner has all the props from Acme. Mr. Rooney tangles repeatedly with a fierce dog. Then, when he finally gets into the house, he is attacked by Jeannie, who—not recognizing him—calls the police to report an intruder in the house.

In every story, something is supposed to happen to the main character that changes him or her. No such thing happens to Ferris Bueller on his day off. He catches a foul ball at Wrigley Field, he commandeers the sound system of a parade float to serenade his friends and the city in general, and he returns home in the nick of time to escape capture by his parents. Some people suggest that Ferris Bueller does not even exist in the movie. They suggest that Ferris is an imaginary character, created by Cameron to be all the things that Cameron cannot be. Although this explanation does not match all the events in the script, it does underline the key to the movie: nothing but good happens to Ferris, and he is unchanged at the end of the movie, but his day off does provide important changes in most of the other characters in the movie.

Sloane does not change. She is there mostly to stand next to Ferris and look pretty. Cameron admires her, and she shows warmth toward him, but she is definitely Ferris’ girl. They even speak lightly of becoming married.  This does not stop Ferris from flirting with young ladies on a parade float. Later, he interrupts a mad dash across the back yards of his neighborhood to introduce himself to two sunbathers. That’s how little respect he has for Sloane. At the same time, though, Cameron, Jeannie, and Mr. Rooney each experience important changes in the movie, changes that would not have happened without Ferris Bueller’s day off.

Cameron begins as a deeply troubled character. He is in bed with symptoms said to be brought on by neglect from his parents. As he prepares to heed Ferris’ call to drive to the Bueller house, Cameron suffers an anxiety attack, crying out and striking the seat of the car. Overcoming his rage, he then has a tussle with his best friend in the midst of his phone call to the school principal. The purloining of his father’s car weighs upon his spirits throughout the day off. Finally, when the group discovers that the garage attendants have taken the car for a spin (adding to the mileage recorded on the odometer, something Cameron’s father monitors carefully), Cameron drops into what appears to be a catatonic state. Even if he is faking it, his choice to respond to his problem in that way, and his success in holding the state for a good length of time, indicate severe emotional health problems. He ends his catanoia with the appearance of an attempted suicide by drowning—again, not an emotionally healthy choice.

After the episode at the swimming pool, the group returns to the garage holding the precious sports car. Once again Cameron suddenly strikes out in anger, kicking and flailing at his father’s car. Realizing that he has damaged the car, Cameron begins to assess his need to deal with his father, no longer to hide behind illnesses and silence. Before he can assimilate that reality, though, the car shoots out the rear of the garage and crashes below the house. “You killed the car,” Ferris observes. Although Ferris weakly offers to take blame for the incident, Cameron refuses. He is going to use the disaster involving the car to assert himself to his father. He is finally going to stand up for himself. This is the last we see of Cameron in the movie.

Meanwhile, Jeannie faces changes of her own. She begins the movie irritated with her brother and his ability to do as he chooses without any negative consequences. After she discovers students in the school hallway raising money to help with Ferris’ feigned illness, she tries to report his crime to the principal, but Mr. Rooney has already left the school in pursuit of Ferris. When Jeannie returns home, she senses the presence of an intruder in the house and calls the police for help. Waiting for them to arrive, she hears a noise in the kitchen. In self-defense she assaults the intruder, not recognizing him as Mr. Rooney. When the police arrive, they find no evidence of an intruder in the house, overlooking Mr. Rooney’s wallet, which he had dropped in the Bueller kitchen. (The police bumble as badly as every other adult figure of authority in the movie.)

Taking her to the police station to charge her with placing a false report, the police leave her for a few minutes sitting next to a drug-dazed Charlie Sheen. In their brief conversation, Sheen gives Jeannie a new outlook on life, beginning with the ability to let Ferris be Ferris without being bothered by whatever he does. Jeannie gets to act on this advice driving her mother home from the police station. Seeing her brother sneaking through the neighborhood, Jeannie begins to drive erratically, distracting her mother and delaying so Ferris can return home safely. He nearly makes it, but he finally is confronted by Mr. Rooney. At this point, Jeannie has found Mr. Rooney’s wallet in the house. She can vindicate herself before the police and still see Ferris suffer for his crimes. Instead, she uses the wallet to blackmail the principal and prevent her brother from the punishment he deserves. Is this turn against authority and responsibility a permanent change for Jeannie or only a temporary softening of her heart? We do not know; her part in the story is over.

This leaves Mr. Rooney. His car has been towed. His nice suit and shoes have been ruined. His body and his pride have been damaged. Now comes a final humiliation. A school bus, filled with students from his school, is ready to take him back to his office. Bedraggled like the Coyote after every attempt to catch the Roadrunner, Mr. Rooney walks down the aisle of the bus. The students stare vacantly at him; in their own way, they have faced a day as tough as his day. One girl takes sympathy upon the principal, offering him a seat and a piece of candy. Has Mr. Rooney learned his lesson? Will his bus ride help him to empathize with the students and care more about their lives? Again, we do not know. Mr. Rooney is left on the bus.

We do not learn about Cameron and his father, or about Jeannie and her new attitude, or about Mr. Rooney and his revelation. This is not their movie. It is Ferris Bueller’s day off. Because he does not care about these people, except for the parts they play in his own entertainment, we are not expected to care about them. Ferris underlines this attitude by addressing the audience one more time after the closing credits. Informing them that the movie is over and they should go home, he reinforces his point. He claimed a day off to enjoy himself, and the effect that has had on other people does not matter to him. In this, he completes his role as the merry prankster.

Moreover, Daylight Saving Time must be abolished. J.

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E for effort

Leave it to college students to discover a new approach to higher education.

I was visiting with some students in a classroom one evening this week. One student described a video he had recently watched (presumably on YouTube) which demonstrated that contemporary education is failing because it is built on a social model that is obsolete. I replied that efforts to reform and restructure education have been around since the 1960s. Another student then remarked, “Why should a person have to take algebra in college if that person is going to be an artist and will never use algebra?”

“The usual answer,” I replied, “is that studying algebra develops thinking skills that are used in a lot of areas other than mathematics.”

The first student then said that education should be more career-oriented. The students were careful not to use history as an example—I am their history instructor—but the students did mention classes they are required to take that have no use in most careers. “The usual answer to that,” I said, “is that education includes more than learning how to do a certain job. Students need to learn how to make a living, but they also need to be exposed to various things that make living worth-while.”

A couple other students nodded. “But why should they have to pass those classes?” the second student asked. “Being exposed to other things is good, but—as long as they come to class and do the work—why should they need to pass the class or take it again if they didn’t pass?”

“That,” I told him, “is a very good point.”

I’ve been thinking about that conversation for a while. A high school graduate should be able to do basic computation—addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division. He or she should be capable of giving correct change, balancing a checkbook, and filling out a simple tax form. A high school graduate should be able to communicate—to read, to write, and to speak in public. Beyond that, a high school graduate should be exposed to science, to history, and to the fine arts—visual arts, music, literature, and drama. It’s best for a high school graduate to have skills in some vocation, especially if that graduate does not plan to continue on to college. For that matter, all those things are true of a college graduate. Each college student should go deeper into his or her chosen field while at college, while also being exposed to a range of experiences from the sciences, the fine arts, and the liberal arts.

But why should they have to pass the classes not related to their major or career?

We already have a grading system perfect for this change, since grades are assigned as A, B, C, D, or F (for failure). Why not add an E for effort? If a professor or instructor perceives that a certain student is trying his or her best in the class but just not getting it, why not give that student an E? Those who don’t show up for classes and don’t turn in assignments would still receive the F, but the student who tries to comprehend algebra or history or chemistry or music appreciation and fails should be given some credit for his or her effort. After all, the object of education is to expose the students to various facets of life. That object has been achieved. Why demand that the student take the class again, when that will only sour the student upon the subject matter, reversing the point of that exposure?

This idea would suit high school and undergraduate college work. Elementary students are still mastering basic skills, so an E for effort would not be appropriate at that age. Likewise, graduate students are focusing on deeper and narrower aspects of their chosen specialty, so an E for effort would be pointless. Honors students would not be allowed to accept an E, nor would an E be given for a class in the student’s major or minor department. In all other cases, though, whether the class is required for all students or chosen as an elective, if the subject has no bearing on the student’s career or personal interests, why not leave the teacher the option of awarding an E?

An E would not enter into a student’s grade point average. That average would reflect only the student’s basic skills in computation and communication, as well as the student’s mastery of knowledge and application relevant to his or her career. The artist would not be barred from graduation because of his or her inability to master algebra. The engineer would not be barred from graduation because of his or her inability to understand Shakespeare. But the artist was exposed to algebra, and the simple effort to handle it enriched his or her thinking skills. The engineer was exposed to Shakespeare, and he or she may return to Shakespeare’s work later in life with a better opportunity to understand and enjoy that work.

What do you think? Should high school and college teachers be permitted to grant their students an E for effort? Why or why not? J.

Lucas

My favorite back-to-school movie is Lucas. Filmed in the Chicago area in 1985, it was released in 1986 to generally favorable reviews. The movie stars Corey Haim in the title role and includes Kerri Green, Winona Ryder, and Charlie Sheen. This discussion of Lucas will contain **many spoilers** so, if you haven’t seen the film, you might want to stop reading now.

Lucas Bly is a high school student with much intelligence and a deep interest in nature. He is smaller than his classmates, perhaps because he was accelerated a year or two in elementary school. He scorns the superficial aspects of high school social life, including football and cheerleading. During the summer he befriends a girl, Maggie, who is new to the area. She likes Lucas and appreciates his attention, but once school begins she wants to fit in with her surroundings. She joins the cheerleading squad and, by the middle of the movie, she is dating a football player, Cappie, who happens to be the only athlete in the school who does not either bully or ignore Lucas.

I attended high school in the Chicago area, and I can affirm that Lucas shows what life was really like at that time and place. Bullies were bullies, the student body was divided into cliques, and school life seemed more oriented around sports than around scholastic achievement or the fine arts. My high school expected to win football and basketball games until we were overpowered by much bigger and wealthier school districts (represented in the movie by Rockford High School). Along with the scenes inside the school, the outdoor scenes also ring true, especially those set by the tracks of the Chicago & Northwestern Railroad.

Lucas attempts the hopeless quest of joining the football team, dreaming that he can win Maggie’s affection away from Cappie. Of course the coach has no intention of allowing Lucas onto the team. When Lucas insists upon his legal right to be allowed to participate in school athletics, he is sent to the principal, who demands a note from Lucas’ father giving permission for Lucas to try out for football. Lucas is stymied, since his father will have nothing to do with the school. However, on the Saturday of the home game against Rockford, Lucas sneaks into the locker room after the game has started, suits up, and trots out to the field. When Lucas badmouths the coach (whose team is already losing badly), the coach decides to teach Lucas a lesson—he sends him out to the field for one play. Lucas is of course knocked to the ground, but he is determined and will not leave the field. The next play develops badly, Lucas runs alone downfield, and he has an opportunity to become the hero of the game.

Some people complain about the key scene, which is that one football play. Their complaints overlook the fact that everything that is wrong about that play fits the rest of the movie’s plot. The football coach is incompetent—he probably has not drilled into the quarterback that one football play cannot have two forward passes. The referees probably did whistle the play dead when the second, illegal, pass was thrown, but given the crowd noise, the whistles are not heard, especially downfield. Lucas drops the pass—even if it were a legal pass, it would be incomplete, and the play should be whistled dead. One of Rockford’s players grabs the loose ball and runs with it, which is exactly what good defenses are trained to do. Lucas has never been taught the rules of football, so naturally he tries to tackle the opposing player with the ball. In the pile-up that results, Lucas is knocked unconscious.

He recovers in the hospital, with Maggie sitting by his side. No, she is not his girlfriend now, but as a friend she is concerned for him. A few days later, Lucas is able to return to school. He is uncomfortable at first, as his fellow students are all staring at him. When he opens his locker, he finds a school jacket hanging inside. The football players who once bullied him now lead the other students in the hallway in applauding Lucas for his strong if pointless determination.

I first saw this movie in a one-dollar theater in the summer of 1986. I was in the Chicago area at the time. The Chicago Bears had won the Superbowl in January of 1986—after the movie was filmed, but before it was released. Football fans will remember that Chicago had a rookie defensive lineman named William Perry, nicknamed the Refrigerator because of his size and weight. The Bears’ defense coach called Perry “a wasted draft pick,” but Perry unexpectedly became an offensive star for the Bears. Coach Ditka used him late in one game as a running back, intending only to maintain possession of the ball without risking his star backs. Instead, Perry showed that, because of his size, he could advance the ball against the defense. Soon Coach Ditka was sending Perry into the game on goal-line situations, and the “wasted draft pick” was scoring touchdowns. He became a hero, along with his more experienced and more talented teammates. His jersey, number 72, was a best-selling item in Chicago area stores all that season and through 1986.

When Lucas snuck into the locker room and suited up, he happened to choose jersey number 72. (Remember, this was filmed before the Bears’ football season had started.) The Chicago area residents in the theater laughed and applauded when undersized Lucas trotted onto the field with William Perry’s number on his back. That remains one of my most vivid memories of watching a film in a movie theater. J.

First Friday Fiction Flashback: Rose Thorns

Finally, I was a high school senior: supreme over three quarters of the student body, ready to leave school in less than a year, almost an adult. The first day of school is always fun, but nothing matches the fun of the first day of senior year. Even preparing to study history and science and math seems exciting on the first day of the senior year.

History class looked especially bright that year—I knew nearly every student in the room, and the few I didn’t already know seemed like people I would enjoy knowing. No one, though, glowed with as much promise as the new girl sitting in one of the front-row desks.

She caught my eye the instant I walked through the doorway. I was convinced at first that she must have come from California, or had at least spent the summer there. She fit my Midwestern stereotype of a California girl: slender and graceful, with long straight blond hair, and with a bright cheerful smile. She dazzled each of us entering the room with her dazzling smile, and she charmed us all with her gentle, friendly brown eyes just above her small, pert nose.

The California stereotype vanished during attendance when she answered to the name of Shannon Knight. Her name and her voice were unmistakably southern, and rural southern at that. I wondered what had brought this belle to our northern village.

I knew right away that Shannon was going to be very popular. Her attitude towards her fellow students showed warmth and interest without a hint of vanity or conceit. People like her are never short of friends, so I figured that I had no reason to get to know her. I know this sounds funny, but I prefer friends who are not popular. They can spend more time being my friend because they aren’t busy trying to be the whole world’s friend.

A couple of months passed, and I noticed that Shannon was not surrounded by admirers as I had expected. Perhaps she escaped notice from the crowd because she was quiet. Maybe it’s just that we had already made our friends during the first three years of high school and no one was ready to add her to their group. It struck me that Shannon needed a friend, and I also needed a friend. I was sure that I could get along with a girl who smiled as much as she did.

I should explain that all through high school I was lacking what most high school boys consider a necessity: I didn’t have a girlfriend. I had several friends who were girls, but I had no one to take to movies or to offer gifts or to write long letters. I hadn’t really tried hard to find a girlfriend, because I knew that I hadn’t yet met the “right girl.” At first, I wasn’t thinking of asking Shannon to be my girlfriend. She seemed lonely, and I realized that I felt lonely too.

One day after history class I walked by her side down the hall. I don’t remember how I started the conversation, but I probably said something about the class. As I had hoped, Shannon was easily engaged in conversation. Within days we were seeking each other out in the halls, walking and talking together between classes and after school. By the end of the month we had traded phone numbers, and we began having long conversations after supper as well as in the school halls.

In these conversations, I learned that Shannon had lived in the small town of Acorn, Virginia until that summer. She was exactly one month older than me. She liked people, but she didn’t like crowds. Her favorite settings were forests and mountains. She abhorred cities. She had no great preference in contemporary music, aside from the fact that she hated both disco and hard rock. Her favorite music was written by Beethoven and Tchaikovsky. She liked to read, and she hoped someday to be an author.

“I just read a really neat book,” she told me one day. “It was about a newspaper reporter who falls in love in love with a Russian actress and spends years trying to meet her.”

“What’s the name of the book?” I asked her.

“I don’t remember,” she replied.

“Well, who wrote it?” I asked.

“I don’t remember,” she repeated. “Why worry about the details? The story is what matters, not the title and name on the cover.”

Her entire philosophy seemed to consist of ignoring labels and other unimportant details. Once when I asked her about her religion, she simply answered, “Christian.”

“But what kind of Christian?” I persisted. “Are you Baptist or Lutheran or Catholic or what?”

“Just a Christian,” she shrugged. “That’s enough.”

I was surprised later to learn that she was a devout Catholic. “I didn’t tell you,” she added, “because it’s not important. Christians shouldn’t argue and fight over their differences. There are enough non-Christians in the world who need our attention. As long as we believe in Jesus as our Savior, why fight about the rest?”

Another time I commented, “You know what amazes me? It’s strange that the two of us became such good friends in such a short time.”

“I don’t believe in being half a friend,” she responded. “People say, ‘Let’s just be friends,’ when what they really mean is that they don’t want to be friends at all. There’s no such thing as ‘just friends.’ All friends are good friends.”

On a different day, either before or after that conversation, Shannon said, “I don’t know why so many people who call themselves ‘friends’ feel a need to prove themselves. Friends don’t need proof; they just need to be loved. I don’t mean love like in the movies, but just plain, simple love. You can’t call yourself a friend without love.”

The first time Shannon visited my house was a warm Saturday afternoon at the start of November. We had not yet had a killing frost, and a lot of the flowers in my mother’s garden were still blooming. Shannon had told me that she liked flowers, so I made sure to show her the late blooms. As we strolled around among the plants, Shannon began whistling a light, simple tune. “That’s pretty,” I told her.

“It has words,” she mentioned, and without waiting for me to ask, she sang them to me. “The prettiest flower fades in an hour, dries up, and is blown away. The roses last longer, their perfume is stronger, but thorns take their beauty away.”

“It’s a nice tune,” I remarked, “but it loses something with those words.”

“The words are the thorns on that rose,” she explained. “Every beautiful thing has its own kind of thorns. Personally, I don’t like roses. Roses are hypocrites—they draw you in by their beauty and then stab you when you touch them. You can’t hurt yourself picking a daisy. Besides, there’s more to a plant than its flower.”

Shannon rarely observed the negative side of anything in life, so her attitude about roses surprised me. I also noticed that she never said “Good-bye.” When I mentioned that fact to her she said, “I prefer to end conversations with ‘Have a nice day,’ or ‘See you tomorrow.’ ‘Good-bye’ sounds so final. It sounds as if you expect never to see that person again.”

Nothing bothered her more than a negative person. “Why can’t they see the light?” she wondered. “Every person has at least one good point, and other people should spend their time looking for that good point instead of focusing on the bad. In any case, they ought to keep their observations to themselves. It’s not my business what one person thinks about another person.” Shannon also disliked worriers. “There are so many good things to consider in the world. It’s no use focusing on the bad things that could happen. Worrying improves nothing. Action can solve problems and make the world better, but people who worry never accomplish anything. Worrying is a waste of time and energy.”

Shannon almost never was angry, but when she did lose her temper, her outbursts were generally constructive. One day in January, I came to school discouraged because of clouds, the snow, and the cold. “Nobody should have to get out of bed on a day like today,” I grumbled.

Shannon looked directly at me, and it felt as if sparks were flying from her eyes. “When you can change the weather, go ahead and do it,” she told me. “Until then, keep quiet about it.”

“I have the right to say how I feel,” I insisted.

“Not around me you don’t,” she said firmly, and that was the last word allowed on that subject.

Spring finally came, and Shannon’s family had relatives visiting. That Saturday afternoon, Shannon called me and surprised me with her request. “We’re putting together a baseball game this afternoon, but we’re short one player. Would you like to join us?”

“You play baseball?” I asked her.

“I play first base,” she answered.

“Are you any good?” I dared to ask.

“Last year I hit about .300 in summer league,” she said. “Are you coming or not?”

“Leave second base open for me,” I offered.

The game was good-natured and I enjoyed it, even though our team lost. After the game, Shannon’s father asked me to stay for dinner, and I accepted. We ate a picnic supper of grilled hamburgers with chips and salads and lemonade. When we were done eating, Mr. Knight started a bonfire. Shannon went into the house and came back with a guitar. She played the guitar and led us in singing some songs we all knew. She also sang some songs I had never heard before. Sunday night, as we spoke on the phone, I mentioned my surprise, learning in one day both that she played baseball and that she played the guitar. “I never knew either of those things about you,” I commented. “I thought I knew you better than that.”

“You were wrong,” she teased me. “Nobody knows everything about me. No one ever will know anything about me. I expect to die a mystery to the world.”

The next weekend I offered to return the favor by taking Shannon to a movie. “I’d invite your whole family to come, but I can’t afford to pay for all their tickets.”

“That’s fine,” she assured me. “They’ll be happy enough just to be rid of me for the evening.”

The movie was good, but somehow sitting next to Shannon in the dark seemed awkward. Before and after the movie, everything we said to each other felt stilted and unnatural. I don’t know why taking her to a movie led to such discomfort, but everything about that night seemed wrong. Shannon obviously felt the same way. When I dropped her off at her house, she looked at me and said, “That was an awful evening!” Oddly, I felt better after she said that to me. Fortunately, she never mentioned our movie night again.

Straight, blunt honesty had always been one of Shannon’s traits. I’m unsure whether to call it a virtue or a fault. We talked about what constitutes a virtue once, and it was one of the few times we disagreed. I insisted that a person’s feelings were more important than always telling the truth. “Lies never helped anyone,” Shannon countered.

“In that case, maybe the best thing to do is change the subject, or say nothing at all,” I offered.

“A half-truth is worse than no truth at all,” she insisted, “and saying nothing or changing the subject is only half a truth. Honestly is always the best policy, and that’s a fact.” Although she didn’t convince me to change my mind, our difference of opinion did not threaten our friendship.

Late in April, I offered to take her to a restaurant. “I don’t know,” she demurred. “Perhaps we should do something outdoors, something where we can be natural with each other.” We promised each other that over the summer we would find outings that suited both of us, activities that would not make us feel stilted and awkward. “You’re not going to forget this promise?” she asked me.

“Don’t worry,” I assured her. “No matter what happens, I will never forget you.”

The school year was winding down; graduation was getting closer every day. Our friendship remained stable, although we were slightly competitive when it came to grades. Shannon was earning an A in English, largely because of her skill at creative writing. Although she sought a life that was simple, her mind was not simple. She was very capable of creating and polishing a complicated and interesting story. She also excelled at math, but with less enthusiasm. “I don’t know how I get As in math; I don’t even try hard,” she commented. Shannon was also passing me by in history, another one of her hobbies along with writing. In chemistry and in Physical Education, it looked as though I might have the edge over her, grade-wise.

On the sixteenth of May, I could tell that something was bothering her. She had just come out of math class, but I couldn’t tell if she was thinking about math or about something else. Shannon was very quiet as we walked from her locker down the hall, out the door, and toward the students’ parking lot. Suddenly, on the sidewalk, she turned to me and said, “Some days I get so mad at myself that I can’t even see straight.”

“Do you want to talk about it?” I asked her.

She hesitated, then shook her head. “Not right now,” she said. “Would you like a ride home?”

“Not today,” I replied. “The walk and the fresh air will be good for me.”

“OK,” she said. “Enjoy your walk. Goodbye.”

“Bye,” I said, and I set out for home.

The seventeenth of May was a Saturday, and I didn’t expect to hear from Shannon until evening. I thought about her all morning, wishing I was bold enough to invite myself over to her house, but my parents frowned upon such bad manners. Late that afternoon the telephone rang, and of course my mother shared the news with me right away.

A few days later I was walking through my mother’s garden, and I saw that the buds on her roses were swelling, getting ready to burst into bloom. My eye traced down the stem to the thorns half-hidden among the leaves. Tears came to my eyes and I knelt in the dirt, crying, as I remembered the florist’s roses Shannon had held in her hands as she lay in the coffin.

First Friday Fiction: The Faintest Chance of a Ghost

Michelle must have fallen asleep while studying, because the sound of her heavy history book hitting the floor woke her. As she bent down to pick it up, she had an uneasy feeling, as if someone was in the room, watching her. Michelle opened her book to the last page that looked familiar and tried to read, but the feeling would not go away. Glancing up, Michelle saw Mike Kirby sitting on her roommate’s bed. When their eyes met, he smiled at her, the same shy smile she had seen in the halls of high school again and again over the past three years. “Don’t worry,” he said. “I won’t be bothering you anymore.” Michelle blinked her eyes twice, and he was gone. The sheets and blanket were spread tight, unwrinkled, the way Nancy left her bed every morning before breakfast. No one had been sitting there.

Michelle shook her head and tried to return to her reading. Somehow, the French Revolution and Napoleon’s empire could not keep her attention. Why, she asked herself, why should Kirby come to mind just now? She had not so much forgotten him as simply chosen not to think about him. He belonged to her old life, her high school life, and the two or three emails he had sent her every week since she started college had gone mostly unanswered.

Everyone at school had called him Kirby, since so many of the boys were named Michael or Mike. She had been an arrogant sophomore when he was a lost and lonely freshman. For the entire year she had refused all his offers of a date. More than once she told him to “stop following me around like a little puppy.” By the start of her junior year, Michelle had a steady boyfriend, and Frank made sure that Kirby knew he had no chance of separating them. Still, Kirby was always there, and she and Frank and the others calmly counted him as part of the group. All the members of the group were frequently in the same classes, and they always ate at the same table at lunch.

Michelle’s senior year, both she and Kirby were in student council, and they frequently chatted about the business of the council. They always voted the same way. Kirby also wrote for the weekly school newspaper. When Michelle played Emily in Our Town, Kirby wrote a glowing review that praised her performance to the skies. Always he seemed to know the limits of their friendship and sensed just how far he could stretch them. On Valentines’ Day, Frank gave her flowers, but Kirby gave her a box of candy hearts. On her birthday Frank took her out for dinner. The next day, Kirby asked her if she had seen the hidden tribute in the newspaper. She looked at the front page article he had written, but nothing about it seemed different from his usual writing. “Look again,” he urged. “Look at the first letter of each paragraph.” Michelle looked and saw that the first paragraph began with an M, the second with an I, and on through the entire story, spelling out her name. Kirby’s “hidden tribute” remained a secret, something neither of them mentioned to anyone else.

After graduation, as the group of friends handed around their yearbooks for signatures and brief friendly notes, Kirby had taken her book into another room and spent twenty minutes writing. What he had written filled most of a page. Since her mind was more on Kirby than on European history, Michelle set the textbook aside and reached for the yearbook. She had brought it to college with her on a whim, and she kept it with all her schoolbooks. She found the page Kirby where Kirby had written, “Michelle, this school will not be the same without you. I know that you will be great at college, and I wouldn’t stop you from going there for all the world. But school days without you around will be like dark cloudy days with no hope of ever seeing the sun. Best wishes on your college studies and on all the great things you are going to do in the future. I know that whatever you do, it will be spectacular. Please don’t ever forget our friendship. Remember that I told you that I would do anything you ask of me. That hasn’t changed just because you have graduated and are going away to college. If you ever need anything, anything at all, just ask and I will do all that I can to help you. You’re the greatest—always have been, always will be. Your friend forever, Mike Kirby.”

Michelle closed the yearbook and tried to clear her mind. She looked at the clock. It was almost midnight. Nancy would be coming back from the library in a few minutes. Michelle decided that she would just have to take her chances with the professor’s quiz in the morning, because she would not be getting any more history reading done that night. Putting the history textbook on her desk so she would have it ready to take to class, Michelle got herself ready for bed.

When she woke Wednesday morning, Mike Kirby was not in her thoughts. Michelle was far more interested in getting dressed, getting a bite to eat, and getting to her classes. History was first, and she did not do any worse on the quiz than she usually did.  Then came algebra, which demanded all her attention for fifty minutes. On her way to the cafeteria for an early lunch before the afternoon’s acting class, Michelle decided to check her phone for messages. She had more than usual for a Wednesday morning. She decided to open the one from her mother first, since it was labeled “Sad News.” Michelle stopped walking and stared at the phone. She read it a second time, but the words had not changed. “Sorry to tell you, Honey, but your friend Mike Kirby died last night in a car wreck. I don’t know yet when the service is going to be, but I thought you might want to try to come home for it.”

Her other messages were also telling her about Kirby. Two of her friends had even sent the link to a short news story about Kirby’s death. “Michael Kirby, 18, was killed last night at 11:45 p.m. in a one-car wreck on Highway 67. He apparently lost control of the vehicle he was driving and left the road, colliding with a fence and landing upside down in a ditch. No one else was injured. Police state that no alcohol was involved. Services are pending.”

Other students calmly walked around Michelle as she stood on the sidewalk, staring at her phone. When she finally started walking again, her feet took her back to her dorm room and not to the cafeteria. Michelle dropped her backpack on the desk, sat down on her chair, and stared at Nancy’s empty bed. “Kirby,” she whispered. “Kirby, why did you do it? Why couldn’t you be more careful?”

The rest of the day passed in a blur. Michelle answered her messages, and she and her friends began sharing memories of Kirby. She told no one about her dream or vision of the night before. Whether it was just a dream, or a premonition, or something more, Michelle was not sure. She did know that, whatever it was, it was something very private, something she could not share with her mother or even with her closest friends.

Between sending and receiving messages, Michelle skimmed through her saved messages to see if she still had any from Kirby. Most of them she had deleted, usually the day she received them. She found three that she had failed to delete. In one of them he had said, “I heard a song on the radio today that made me think of you. No, it wasn’t by the Beatles” (That part made her smile the first time she read it. Michelle liked most of the Beatles’ songs, but she had heard “Michelle” too often in her life, often sung badly by others, and Kirby—like all her friends—knew that she hated that song.) “but the next time we see each other, I’ll tell you what it was.” Kirby was often hinting that they would see each other sometime soon. He wrote how he was looking forward to Thanksgiving and to Christmas, when she would be home from school. He also said that he might come visit her at her college. Michelle had told him a couple of times that college kept her very busy, she was swamped, and even if he drove to visit her she would have no time to spend with him. He kept on hinting about the next time they would be together, and Michelle finally chose to ignore those hints.

Another message that she found went back to the first week of school for them both. “I’ve taken to parking in your old spot,” Kirby had written. “It’s not so much that I want my car to be in that spot, but I just wanted to keep anyone else from taking your favorite spot. It’s one way I have of remembering you every day when I get to school.”

The last message was more recent. “I know that you’re busy and don’t even have time to answer my messages, but I don’t mind. Just writing them and sending them makes me think of you, and that alone makes me happy.  Go ahead and answer me when you can, and please don’t be mad at me for writing you more than you can write me.”

Michelle had never been mad at Kirby. Mostly she had been concerned for Kirby. She never wrote him the words that she wanted to say—she had wanted to say, “Forget about me. Get a life.” But she didn’t write him that message because she did like him enough not to want to hurt his feelings.

She had talked with Nancy about Kirby. “We were friends in high school—just friends. We traveled in the same group. He was always a bit intense around me, but I guess that’s just the way he is. All these messages from him are getting on my nerves, but I don’t really want to tell him to stop. It’s weird. I don’t know what to do about him.”

“Is he one of those nasty boys with thick glasses and bad skin and bad breath? The kind that can’t ever get a date?” Nancy asked.

“No, not really. His clothes are kind of geeky, but he’s not dirty or disgusting. Actually, he’s kind of sweet—very polite, and really smart. I don’t know why he latched on to me. Of all the girls in school, there was nothing special about me. But he treated me like I was special. And he’s still writing me messages all the time.”

“Sounds like a dream. If I had been you, I would’ve dropped Frank and let Kirby take care of me instead.”

Michelle and Frank were going to different schools, and Frank had ended the summer by telling Michelle that he didn’t think they should be steady. He thought they both should date people at their own schools. As a result, Michelle had not said very kind or complimentary things to Nancy about her ex-boyfriend. He had not written, not even once, and Michelle had stopped sending him messages after the first week at school. She still missed him, and she hadn’t dated anyone yet at college, but the emptiness was going away.

That day Michelle had dropped the subject, but it came back again one day when Nancy was in the room. Michelle had been having a hard time with algebra; she had been trying to complete an assignment on line and had needed to restart the same problem again and again because she kept making mistakes. Just when her anger was ready to burst at the next interruption, the blue rectangle of Outlook Express ® appeared in the corner of the screen. “It’s raining today and that made me think of you. Yesterday the sun was shining, and that made me think of you.” Michelle screamed and threw her algebra book across the room. Nancy looked up and said, “Is it really that bad?”

“It’s him, again, telling me that he’s thinking of me. Why doesn’t he just leave me alone?”

“Do you really want him to leave you alone?”

“Yes! I need to do my homework; I can’t stop to deal with his loneliness and heartsickness all the time.”

“Just tell him how you feel, then.”

“I don’t want to hurt his feelings.”

“Why not?” Michelle paused. She didn’t have an answer for that question. Why didn’t she want to hurt Kirby’s feelings?

She thought about this for a couple more days. Finally, it occurred to her that ignoring his messages probably hurt his feelings more than it would to tell him how she felt.  So one evening she replied to another of Kirby’s many notes. “Kirby, I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I’m not sure that I’m going to say it right, but I wish you would stop writing to me. I’m busy here and you have a lot to do there, and I just don’t have the time or the energy to give to you right now. I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is.”

His answer was rapid and short. “As you wish,” he wrote. Then the days started to pass, and he sent her no more messages.

The next weekend, Nancy asked about Kirby out of the blue. “Are you still hearing from that boy back home?” she asked.

“No,” Michelle said. “I told him how I felt and he seems to understand. He just sent one brief message, ‘As you wish,’ and that’s the last I heard from him.”

Nancy gave a theatrical sigh. “As you wish,” she repeated. “How romantic!”

Michelle shook her head. “It’s just the way he writes,” she said. “He can be a little formal, even stilted at times, but you always know what he means.”

“Don’t you get it, you ninny? Haven’t you ever seen The Princess Bride? Remember how the farmboy, Wesley, says those words to Buttercup? And when he says, ‘As you wish,’ what it really means is, ‘I love you.’”

Michelle was stunned. She hadn’t thought of The Princess Bride when she read his message. The association was just the sort of thing Kirby was likely to make. She thought about writing back to him to ask him about it, but she knew that would break the whole point of asking him not to write to her. Knowing Kirby, that was exactly what he had planned with his message.

Nancy shook her head. “No boy has ever said, ‘As you wish,’ to me. You are so lucky. You don’t know how lucky you are.”

Now, two weeks later, Kirby was dead. Michelle still didn’t know what to think about the dream or vision of him she had received the night he died. She sat and thought about that eerie sense that someone had been in the room watching her. She sat and thought about how natural Kirby had looked sitting on Nancy’s bad. She vividly remembered Kirby’s voice saying, “I won’t be bothering you anymore.” Michelle did not get any homework done that night. She slept poorly, waking up at every sound in the room, but none of the sounds were caused by a ghost. If she had any dreams that night, she did not remember them, but when she got out of bed in the morning, she was exhausted.

Walking across campus to class, Michelle thought she saw Kirby walking toward her on the sidewalk. When the man got closer, though, it turned out that he was one of the other students at the college. In fact, up close he didn’t look much like Kirby at all. Then, at lunch, Michelle saw another student who, from behind, looked just like Kirby. Feeling a bit foolish, Michelle took a detour around the table, only to see that, from in front, he didn’t resemble Kirby in the slightest way. Three more times that afternoon, Michelle thought briefly that she caught a glimpse of Kirby. Each time, the man she saw was someone else.

Michelle caught herself wondering if Kirby might have faked his death just to get her attention focused on him. But Michelle knew that Kirby could not have faked the news article that was online, nor could he have persuaded Dilinger Funeral Home to post the obituary that was now also online. His funeral was scheduled for Saturday, and Michelle argued with herself about whether or not she should attend. On the one hand, she really wanted to be there, to pay her respects, to share her condolences with his mother and his younger brother, and to hug her friends from high school and cry with them over Kirby’s death. On the other hand, Michelle had a vivid picture of herself walking into the church, only to have someone stand up and accuse her of causing Kirby’s death. She tried to remind herself that she had done nothing at all to lead to his death. Then another part of her mind said that by doing nothing at all she had made herself guilty. Kirby would be alive today if she had just been a better friend to him.

Thursday night Michelle dreamed about Kirby. The two of them, with a group of friends from high school, were walking together down the streets of their home town.  They walked past the Baptist Church and past the bank, and they were approaching the fire station. Kirby was talking passionately about something, but after she awoke Michelle could not remember what he had been saying. For the first time that week, her grief burst through her sense of shock, and she cried for several minutes, alone in her room. Fortunately, Nancy was taking a shower at the time.

Friday was much like Thursday for Michelle, with a student here or there looking like Kirby from a distance, bringing him to mind again and again. Somehow she got through classes and meals and managed to make it back to her room. Nancy had already left for the weekend. Michelle planned to get up early Saturday morning and drive back home for the funeral. The dorm was quiet, with most of the students heading home or partying somewhere in town.

Michelle picked up her history book and opened it. Then she closed it again. She looked across the room at Nancy’s bed, but no one was sitting there. “Kirby,” Michelle whispered. “Why aren’t you here? Why did you visit me only once?” No one answered.

“Haunt me, Kirby,” Michelle implored. “Haunt me like Catherine haunted Heathcliff. I know I deserve it. Kirby, I’d like to see you again, at least one more time.” But still she received no answer. The one chance that Kirby had wanted for years, the one chance for which he had earnestly yearned, was a chance he did not take. For his one and only chance to win Michelle’s heart came too late for Kirby.