In the final monologue of The Breakfast Club, the John Hughes movie about five teenage archetypes facing detention on a Saturday morning, the students leave their teacher Mr. Vernon with a brief, triumphant essay:
We think you're crazy to make us write an essay telling you who we think we are. You see us as you want to see us... In the simplest terms, in the most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each one of us is a brain...and an athlete … and a basket case … a princess … and a criminal. Does that answer your question?
[Cue Simple Minds’ “Don’t You (Forget About Me)”]
[Judd Nelson fist-pump freeze frame]
The triumphalism is a little weird, because it assigns to Mr. Vernon all the prejudices that the students had of each other just a few hours earlier. It was only by sharing the misery of a Saturday morning that the Brain, Athlete, Basket Case, Princess, and Criminal realized how much they had in common. Each member of his or her own stereotype had to be conscripted into an uncomfortable experience to become friends with somebody different.
The last scene of The Breakfast Club is not an obvious teaching moment for sociologists, but according to Daniel McFarland, the lead author of a new paper on high school cliques, it offers a perfect lesson in how cliques harden in some schools—and why they barely form in others. In short, the natural instinct for teenagers to separate themselves into clusters and hierarchies is weakened when schools force kids to partner with peers they wouldn't otherwise want to be around to see first-hand the benefits of unlikely friendships.