John Hughes’ classic teen flick turns 30 this weekend, which means it’s been 30 years since we’ve heard ‘Haga Naga!’
Baldy Strickland. Dean ‘Show me the dead grandmother!’ Rooney. No doubt about it, the 1980s were a great time to be a terrible teacher on screen. But for our money the daddy of them all, bestriding the decade like a titan of ill-tempered tutoring, is Principal Richard ‘Dick’ Vernon. Played to perfection by the late Paul Gleason, Vern is the strutting, secretly disillusioned scourge of Shermer High School in The Breakfast Club, and the coolest man to ever jab an accusing finger in rage. As John Hughes’ evergreen classic prepares to turn 30 this weekend, we pay tribute to this dark prince of dodgy disciplinarians with a rundown of his finest moments.
“DON’T MESS WITH THE BULL, YOUNG MAN, YOU’LL GET THE HORNS”
Vernon signals the start of Saturday detention by inviting his wayward pupils to “ponder the error of (their) ways” while writing him a 1,000-word essay. Look at the swagger on this guy! He thinks he’s Dirty Harry, but he’s not even Harry and the Hendersons.
“Any questions?” he asks, having set out his iron-fisted stall, only for bad-boy John Bender (Judd Nelson) to enquire sarcastically if Barry Manilow knows that he’s been raiding his wardrobe. BIG MISTAKE, PAL. Vernon responds by dishing out another Saturday detention, and a parting shot that is at once totally badass and toe-curlingly dad-like. One-nil to the Dickmeister!
“I GOT YOU FOR THE REST OF YOUR NATURAL-BORN LIFE IF YOU DON’T WATCH YOUR STEP”
The detentions stack up comically as Vernon and Bender square off in the classroom. It’s a revealing scene, and one that will be familiar to anyone who’s watched a tyrant teacher’s authority go up in smoke when he comes up against a pupil that really, truly doesn’t give a fuck. Gleason is a joy to watch here, giving us just a hint of the cocksure youth Vernon might once have been, as his blustering threats fail to achieve the desired effect.
The bored principal stoops for a drink from a corridor faucet before checking his reflection out in a glass cabinet door. “Haga naga!” he shouts, apropos of nothing, as if to reassure himself that he’s not lost his youthful spark (he definitely has). Apparently, the line is a nod to Gleason’s own salad days at North Miami Beach High School (‘haga naga’ being the rallying cry for the school football team).
“JUST WHAT I THOUGHT… YOU’RE A GUTLESS TURD”
The fig-leaf of their teacher-pupil relationship now dispensed with, Vernon lets his true feelings be known by challenging Bender to a fight. “I’m gonna knock your dick in the dirt,” he declares meanly, a lifetime of disappointed dreams welling up to the fore. Bender just looks shocked, and Vernon pig-headedly interprets his refusal to fight as a lack of ‘guts’. Classic Dick move from Dick there.
“THESE KIDS TURNED ON ME. THEY THINK I’M A BIG FUCKING JOKE”
Now we get to the crux of Big Vern’s beef with the world: he keeps on getting older, but the kids stay the same age. “I’ve been teaching for 22 years,” he whines to a colleague. “And each year these kids get more and more arrogant.” The colleague demurs, but clearly, this Dick is not for distracting: “This is the thought that wakes me up in the middle of the night – that when I get older these kids are gonna take care of me.” “I wouldn’t count on it,” retorts the other guy, condemning him to his fate as a lonely, angry man who likes making kids feel bad about themselves. Somehow, we still love him anyway.