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Good Letters

Decades ago, in the faraway land of Orange County, California, Jennifer Hawk and Tania Runyan shared a number of classes but traveled in different social circles. Tania was scary nerdy awkward—E.T. and Laura Ingalls’ lovechild–and Jen was scary sexy cool, black eyeliner, skateboards, and bands Tania couldn’t pronounce. But in the past few years they’ve developed a deeper relationship, sharing their lives and their experiences as a Christian (Tania) and an atheist (Jen) with one another via an online correspondence.

They last shared their correspondence with us when they wrote about 
Contact—a 1997 sci-fi flick starring Jodie Foster and based on Carl Sagan’s novel that engages the intersection of science and faith. Jennifer said the film was the key to understanding her spiritual struggles as an atheist.

Today, Tania asks Jen to watch a movie that has impacted her: Rushmore.

For more writing about the importance of artistic friendship (and rivalry), check out Image 100 and the editorial statement “Best of Rivals” by James K.A. Smith.

A twee teenage male fantasy that seemingly has so little to do with my life?

Jason Schwartzman as Max Fischer in Rushmore

Dear Jen,

Back as an English teacher in the early 2000’s, a decade after we graduated from high school and a decade before we reconnected on Facebook, I assigned my senior lit students a film analysis project comparing and contrasting The Graduate (1967) and Rushmore (1998). In preparation, we charted and studied character, music, cinematography, dialogue, visual effects, and every other imaginable detail until my students begged for mercy. What I remember most, though, was talking to a kid named Alex after class one day. He told me he watched Rushmore almost nightly as a way to cope with his depression.

This made a lot of sense to me because I, too, found the movie healing for reasons I could not—and still can’t, at least not very eloquently—explain.

You’re about to watch this movie for the first time. I’m jealous, and, to be honest, afraid you’re going to hate it and think I’m freakish for getting swept up in a twee teenage male fantasy that seemingly has so little to do with my life.

Unlike your most important movie, Contact, which we discussed in our first Good Letters exchange, Rushmore doesn’t deal directly with religious, philosophical, or cosmological themes. There aren’t issues to discuss and debate as much as characters to fall in love with, many of them endearingly idiotic. I repeat lines from the film as naturally as breathing. (I can’t watch someone eat carrots without asking them if they’re “having some carrots” in Bill Murray’s clipped, awkward tone. It’s not even one of the movie’s famous lines, but it cuts to the marrow of my insecurities.) But what does Rushmore have to do with faith? And does my Christian perspective even make a difference?

Max Fischer, played by Jason Schwartzman (who had never appeared on screen before Wes Anderson nabbed him for this film) is a delightfully nerdy and arrogant high school sophomore who’s made his mark on Rushmore Academy by presiding over a host of activities while earning abysmal grades. Max seems to get what whatever he wants until he meets the young, widowed first-grade teacher, Miss Cross. Clearly, the boy whose mother died many years ago sees a mother figure in Miss Cross, but as a confused adolescent, he becomes immediately infatuated and sees no reason why he can’t have her, too. The Herman Blume comes in, befriending Max while eventually competing for Miss Cross’s affections and floundering with his own identity crisis.

I know you see me as a “churchy” type (though many church people don’t), and compared to you, an outspoken atheist, I suppose I am. So, from these strange trenches, I can report that a lot of churchy people favor the so-called “good vs. evil” types of movies, like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and all those other sweeping epics with battle scenes, dragons, and/or spaceships, that convey Great Moral Truths. I’ve always been more a woman-at-the-well person than a parting-of-the-Red-Sea person. Give me a little blip of grace and reconciliation over a sacrificial hero any day. I would argue that Max throwing his bully Magnus a script for one of his “feckin’ plays” rivals the cutting off of Mendoza’s sack of penance in The Mission as a picture of redemption. It’s little moments like these that wreck me, that bring me to the dusty feet of Christ.

In his review of Rushmore on Consequence of Sound, Dominick Suzanne-Mayer describes the film as “an angry movie in the way that people are usually angry in life: exhausted, sometimes a little wearily funny, often just trying to find something or someone else to help shoulder the burden for a while.”

Rushmore has shifted and grown with me as my burdens have changed. I first encountered Max as a young adult in my 20s, struggling with finding my own identity as a teacher and writer who wasn’t sure I could do either very well. I continued watching the film as I became a teacher of many loveable Maxlike characters myself, quirky kids with big, messy hearts who had so much more to offer than high test scores.

Now, I’m a parent of kids Max’s age. I finally get why Mr. Fischer turns the “37” into an “87” on Max’s math test. I get why he lets Max figure out his own life while he takes some time off of school, and when Max takes Margaret Yang’s plant to his mother’s grave, I understand how the death of a parent isn’t just a part of a kid’s life but is his life. The older I get, the more vulnerable Max becomes, and the more beautiful the moments of grace and forgiveness in his life.

I looked up Alex on Facebook and sent him a message to ask if he remembered having that serious of a relationship with Rushmore. (Another one of my favorite lines, by the way: “That’s all I meant by relationship. Want me to grab a dictionary?”) Here is Alex’s response:

“I certainly recall watching that movie repeatedly, as for some reason I found it quite soothing. I’m sure that had everything to do with its nerdy / angsty / angry protagonist. I still love the film though certainly my understanding of its characters (and perspective about them) has shifted with age. I studied film in college / have been working in the film industry since then, that movie probably more than any other was a chief influence on that decision.”

So my former student works in film because of Rushmore. That’s got to lend it some credibility, right? Whatever the case, I now release Max, Herman, Miss Cross, and the rest of the quirky cast to you. What do you think? Where do you fit in at the concluding cast party? Whom are you dancing with, and why?

Your Friend,


Rebellion Can Be Spiritual

Bill Murray as Herman Blume in Rushmore

Dear Tania,

As you know, my son’s name is Max. The first time I heard his name in Rushmore certainly got my attention. My Max is 14-years-old, not much younger than main character Max Fischer. Throughout the film, I watched not only as a first-time viewer, but also as the mom of a boy that age. Max Fischer lost his mother, and my son has almost lost me. Unlike Max Fischer, My Max had strong grades and a healthy social life. That is, until I attempted suicide in 2017. Suddenly, as a 7th-grader, he was failing his classes and pulling away from his friend circles. There will always be a part of me that both my son and I will mourn, so as soon as I learned of Max Fischer’s mother’s death, I watched intently to see how they treated her passing.

Could this movie give me answers? Could I learn about My Max from Max Fischer? What would’ve happened if I had succeeded?

The life of an atheist can be supremely lonely. People distance themselves from me in life, and since I don’t believe in any sort of afterlife, I don’t believe I’ll see any of my passed loved ones. It’s just a dark wonderland of nothing. Released from the pain of the world, only to become worm food. Fin. Those feelings always surface when I watch a movie. Any movie. All movies. Because our spiritual beliefs define us, and I’m always in search of answers to all the same questions that Christians ask.

In your letter, you characterized me as an “outspoken atheist,” and you’re so right. Many non-believers live this way because we have to scream above the Abrahamic religions to be heard. Literally billions of people on our planet want to silence me, condemn me, damn me, assault me, and kill me. If anyone from the cast understands this tangible angst, it’s Herman. We don’t know exactly why, but we can see it in his face—defeated, lonely, ratty hair, sardonic, but soft and capable of love. Of course, being who I am, I fell in love with Herman’s anarchy speech in the church. It’s non-spiritual on the surface, but in truth it was the first time in the movie that I felt humanly moved. Rebellion can be spiritual. And in that case, I’m a saint.

In 1998, the year Rushmore came out, I began my MFA program and picked up a teaching gig at the university my first semester. I wasn’t much older than many of my students. I dressed edgy and I was in love with writing. My teaching style led to my receiving hand-baked cookies, controversial books, and scarves at the ends of semesters. I also collected admirers. And two stalkers. When I watched Rushmore, a ton of memories resurfaced. Snapshots of shy watchers and outspoken young men fist fighting over me (only once!). Students whom I slept with within hours of submitting final grades. The shock! Not that I slept with them, but because I am a woman. Only male professors make unethical choices, right? I was a prurient version of Miss Cross, so as I watched the film for this round, I felt very nervous about where they might take Max and Miss Cross’s relationship.

I’ve had a long flirtation with an MFA professor—the kind that would make Max’s head explode. As a student, I was so infatuated. And my professor favored me, too. He was older than my parents and would come to barbecues at their house, meet me around town for beers, go to my readings, join me at strange parties. He attended my 30th birthday blowout party. Years later during a routine dinner visit, he revealed something about our relationship: he told me that his wife had believed that we had been having an affair. My stomach clenched and I couldn’t breathe for a second. I was so taken by the thought that someone would believe that HE’d have an affair with ME, that HE could love ME. And you can see this in Herman’s pursuit of Miss Cross. Falling over the fence, asking about her carrots, hiding behind a tree. Slapstick, but so important to reveal Herman’s folly-turns-to-love. To show us all that our follies can lead to love, too.

Max’s follies were not so endearing, especially his claims about sexual contact with Dirk’s mother and his aggressively ignoring Miss Cross’s boundaries.

What would Max have done if Miss Cross had allowed such an intense relationship as I shared with my professor? Max turns every meeting into an opportunity for possible sexual contact. My professor and I never had anything physical. No kiss. No hopes for that. We slow danced at my father’s retirement party, and my poem about that got published in a collection of Long Beach poetry, immortalizing him Shakespeare-style. But that’s about it. Could Max handle this kind of intimacy-with-distance? (Granted, Max is 15, and I was 26.)

I knew a Max Fischer—a boy named Randy Wolfe in high school. He was an inbetweener. Not super popular, but everyone knew him. Like Max, he had an inner motivation that not many understood. Or wanted to. He sealed his high school fame by selling candy to pay for a nose job. Also like Max did with Mrs. Calloway, Randy constructed a fantasy and spread details around school that I had performed certain sexual acts with him. It became part of my already spotty high school reputation. Everyone knew that I would never be attracted to him, but it made an awesome story for two years. For everyone else. In my senior yearbook he wrote, “I’m so sorry it didn’t work out. I need a different kind of woman.”

As I was preparing for this piece, several potential focuses emerged. Feminist/misogyny issues. Comparing to Holden Caulfield. All my deeper relationships with teachers. My heavy 15th year. Mark Mothersbaugh’s contributions to the soundtrack. And then I realized that one of the most charming parts about Rushmore is its light-handed hints at the darkness and recovery we all face throughout our lives. It’s a story about a boy and a woman and a man trying to love each other, and this is why it works. It’s my story. It’s everyone’s story.


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The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: Jennifer Hawk and Tania Runyan

Jennifer Hawk is a Southern California native, a mother, and a former professor of English. She left the academy in pursuit of less formal, more tangible discourse. Her publications include poetry, short stories, and scholarly work.

Tania Runyan is the author of the poetry collections What Will Soon Take Place, Second Sky, A Thousand Vessels, Simple Weight, and Delicious Air, which was awarded Book of the Year by the Conference on Christianity and Literature in 2007. Her guides How to Read a Poem, How to Write a Poem, and How to Write a College Application Essay are used in classrooms across the country.

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