The play is an American classic, filled with timeless insights about life. For a long time, Lee J. Cobb starred in it; later came Dustin Hoffman. Now, 41 years after its premiere, it has made its way to Phoebe Stevens's fifth period English literature class at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville.
" 'Death of a Salesman,' " Mrs. Stevens announces, holding up a copy of the play. It is a dogeared thing, 139 pages long. Stacked on a table are two dozen other copies, all stamped "Property of Montgomery County Public Schools." In two weeks, the play will be the subject of a test. Until then, it will be read during class, a process that begins with Mrs. Stevens passing out the copies to her students. All of the students are juniors. Most of them are 16. Most of them think they are in the midst of the most important year of their lives.
She gives a copy to a girl who is having problems with her 23-year-old boyfriend and is carrying around a book called You're My Best Friend, Lord.
She gives another copy to a varsity football player who went out cruising a few months ago, ended up at a pizza place and beat up some people he decided were gay.
She gives copies to a boy with a pack of cigarettes tucked in his pocket, a girl in a black leather jacket and black pants and black boots whose favorite music group is Nuclear Assault, a boy whose dream is to play first horn for the National Symphony Orchestra, a boy who wants to play major league baseball, a girl whose friends have been calling her a "wussy" because she is afraid to talk to a certain boy, a boy who says he began drinking when he was 11, another who says sex began at 13. The play they get tells of what can happen when children become adults, of mistakes and disintegration and death. "Kids think they're infallible" is Mrs. Stevens's explanation for choosing such a play. "They don't have the perception of tragedy."
Most of the students take a moment to glance at the cover, which shows Dustin Hoffman as Willy Loman, an old man who seems beaten down and frightened. Some look out the window instead. There is a magnolia tree out there and a sky that is cloudless and blue. There is a breeze too, and when it comes in the window, it causes the Venetian blinds to momentarily rattle, a lazy, distracting sound.
"Okay," Mrs. Stevens says. "Who wants to be Willy Loman?"
WILLY LOMAN, OF COURSE, IS ANYTHING but 16. He is a salesman who can no longer sell. He has bills he can no longer pay. His sons are failures, his wife is wearing down, his dreams are all but exhausted. He is about as far from 16 as you can get, especially 16 the way people like to remember.
That age -- after the fact, at least -- can seem like one of the best ages of all. It was the time when everything was possible, when nothing was hard. For some people, it's the year they've used as a measure for everything since, even after they've married, had children, had 50 years of successes and joys. Maybe their honeymoon was wonderful and their marriage is happy, but it's a clumsy night in the grass with someone long vanished that stands in the memory most vividly. Maybe their new Mercedes can be regarded as a gauge of success, but it's their first car, ragged and dirt-cheap, that seems the most special of all. "I remember 16," says Mary Hopkins, a security officer at Richard Montgomery High, smiling at the thought. "It was the year I had more fun than any other year in my life."
She remembers 16 even though it happened back in the 1950s, which was when Tom Quelet, the school's principal, spent his 16th year at the Mighty Mo drive-in in Baltimore "in a '53 Chevy," which was when Tony Deliberti, the school's community service organizer, spent his 16th year in Brooklyn going to church, eating pizza and, every now and then, drinking a beer. "A beer," he emphasizes.
And so goes 16 in retrospect: memories that bring smiles. For those living it now, a lot of it is the same. But not all of it. Their concerns may be the same -- parents who don't understand, the futility of school, self-doubt, the meaning of love -- but the context for their lives isn't what it was even 10 years ago. "I'm 26. I can remember 10 years back. I can remember I was not so easily swayed by peer pressure," says Liz Hamernick, the school's home economics teacher. Now, she says, "the peer pressure is incredible."
"I have kids who are anorexic, bulimic, a couple of drug addicts, kids whose family is in such disarray that they don't have anyone to turn to," says Watson Prather, a guidance counselor at the school. "We have conferences here where the parents are at each other's throats, and the kid is sitting there in the middle. And that's got to be tough. People outside can hear the screaming, and then you have to walk outside and face your friends . . ."
"I was in the hallway earlier," says Mary Hopkins, "standing next to a boy who was watching girls go past, and he said, 'Damn, she was good last night.' I said, 'What?' He said, 'You heard what I said.' I said, 'You're lying.' Another one walked past. 'Her too.' These are girls who look like they're babies. I said, 'You've got to be kidding.' He said, 'No, I'm not, either.' He said, 'Miss Mary, I could go on and on.' "
Maybe the boy was lying, maybe not. If studies of teenagers can be believed, half of the girls and most of the boys will have had sex by the time they are 17. Most of them will also have smoked cigarettes and perhaps half will have tried a drug other than alcohol. As for alcohol: According to one recent study, 9 out of 10 students tried it sometime during high school; according to the students themselves, a lot are getting falling-down drunk from cheap beer and wine coolers.
All of which makes 16, for those just reaching it, an amazing and anxious time. One day they're 15, a kid, and the next day, just like that, they can drive, quit school, go to work. Their parents, they are realizing more and more, aren't necessarily heroes. Above all, the pressures on them are building. The inclination is to keep goofing off, which is how a lot of them have gotten by for 15 years, but they are suddenly being told by parents, by teachers, by guidance counselors that the time for goofing off is over, that they have to get good grades, so they can go to a good college, so they can get a good job, so they can retire financially secure, so they'll never be failures, so they can always pay their bills.
Which, in the myopia of 16, can make life seem like nothing more than a long march down a narrowing tunnel.
"I see it as you're born, you go to school, you get a job, you die," says Judy Swope, one of Mrs. Stevens's students.
"I feel personally like sometimes I want to scream," says another student, Lauren Funkhouser.
"I remember," says Mrs. Stevens, thinking back to the days when she was 16, "that it was the first time I heard kids use cuss words." Of her students now, she says, "I look at them all the time. I look at them and think, 'Boy oh boy.' "
MICHAEL HALL VOLUNTEERS TO BE Willy Loman. He is one of Mrs. Stevens's best students, the one who one day wants to play in the National Symphony, who brings to school lunches of Fritos and pudding and meatloaf croissants. During the time it takes to read the play, he will turn 16 and get a car. "I can drive now," he will say of how it feels to be rid of 15. "I guess it doesn't seem like there's a whole lot of time left before college."
Tonya Palmer volunteers to be Willy's wife, Linda. In the course of the play, she will break up with her 23-year-old boyfriend, whom she had been dating for more than a year. "Boys have me stressed out," she will say afterward. She will also watch a film in another class where, in the dark, the student next to her will whisper something about drugs, roll up her sleeve and say, "You want to see the needle marks?" Tonya won't look but will whisper back, "You can die from that stuff." "But you're gonna die anyway," the girl will nonchalantly say.
"Willy," Tonya says, reading the first line of the play. The stage directions tell her that her voice is to show trepidation, but it comes out pretty much flat.
"It's all right," Michael Hall says, reading Willy's reponse. His voice is pretty flat too.
In this manner, the play stumbles along, quickly losing something in the translation. Mrs. Stevens is an enthusiastic teacher, but she can do only so much. Climaxes become dirges, cues are ignored, fingers are chewed on, feet tap, yawns are deep. Constantly, eyes shift around, but in Room 223, as typical a high school classroom as can be found, there isn't much to see. The blinds are about the same milky color as the walls, as the acoustical ceiling, as the tile floor, as the face of the broken clock whose hands haven't moved in a month. The door is open, but even the hallway is empty.
In a few minutes, when the bell rings, that will change. Precisely when is a mystery because of the clock, but it will ring, and then it will be time for lunch. Some students will go to McDonald's, one will go out back for a quick smoke because "it calms my nerves," some will go to Little Caesar's, and John Ferguson, who had three bowls of cereal for breakfast, will probably just have Twinkies. "I eat Twinkies all the time," he says.
"You eat Twinkies?" a girl who has overheard this asks.
"I eat Twinkies all the time," he repeats.
"They're nasty. They're gross. You could bury Twinkies in the ground, and they'd be there, like, forever."
"I love Twinkies," John Ferguson declares.
Some students won't eat at all. Instead, they'll simply hang around hallways that once seemed unnavigable and now are as comfortable as their own homes. Between classes, those hallways are jammed with 1,200 students, from freshmen who are pitifully small to seniors who look like they're approaching 30. It is a typical mix in a typical suburban school, and for five minutes lockers are flung open, boys kiss girls who lean against walls, girls duck into bathrooms where they write messages of love in lipstick on the mirrors, boys throw out wrappers from foods like Lance Giant Size Spicy Beef Snack. Until the bell, though, the halls are deserted, and the only sounds at all are the ones coming from different classrooms.
In Room 203 one day, a 16mm film is working its way through a projector with a single, tinny speaker. "We Americans are a proud people," the narrator is saying.
Another day, in cooking class, the focus is on Chinese food. "This is duck sauce," Liz Hamernick is saying to her students. "What do you think the main ingredients are?"
"Duck," comes the first answer.
Meanwhile, back in Room 223, Tonya Palmer and Michael Hall are working their way through Act 1.
"Willy, dear, I got a new kind of American-type cheese today," says Tonya.
"Why do you get American when I like Swiss?" says Michael.
"I just thought you'd like a change," says Tonya.
"I don't want a change! I want Swiss cheese. Why am I always being contradicted?" says Michael.
There are several such exchanges between Willy and Linda Loman as their lives fall apart, and during one of them Mrs. Stevens asks a question.
"Does any of this sound familiar?"
Some of the students nod their heads. Some laugh. "Yes." ACT
Willy's deterioration continues. His life is closing in on him. "The woods are burning," he says. He is hallucinating, answering to ghosts, dwelling on the day when his older son, Biff, his bright light, failed an exam in math. "That son of a bitch," Willy says of Biff's teacher.
"That son of a bitch," whispers Lauren Funkhouser. And smiles.
Lauren Funkhouser, a bright, giggly girl who epitomizes the sweetness of 16, has been awake since 6:15. It is when she awakens every weekday. She showers, dresses in clothes she selected the night before, dries her hair, curls it, sprays it, puts on foundation, blush, eye shadow, mascara, lipstick and perfume, and is out the front door by 7. She doesn't worry about breakfast because she'll make up for it during the day. The day before, for instance, she had a meatball sub, pizza, turkey slices, peanut M&Ms, two Fruit Roll-Ups, macaroni and cheese, a salad and a Coke. So breakfast can be missed. It's more important to get to school, get through the first four periods and come to Mrs. Stevens's class, where she sits three rows away from a boy named Tom Farrell.
"I'm in love," Lauren told Mrs. Stevens during the second week of school.
It was the first time in her life she had said such a thing. Until this year, she had attended private Catholic schools. In elementary school, the boys were like brothers; in grades 9 and 10 there were no boys at all. This year, she transferred to Richard Montgomery because "I was just so sick of Catholic school." It was her choice to switch, but she didn't know quite what to expect. "She thought she'd be mugged in the halls," says Watson Prather, her guidance counselor. Instead, she discovered that in public schools, there are young men who aren't like brothers at all.
"I know everything about him," she says of Tom. "I know where he lives. I've got his number memorized. I know he has an older sister. I know he's not anything, any religion, and that's really weird for me. I know he's got great blue eyes. I like his eyes. I like his smile. He has a great smile. He has straight teeth."
The only thing she doesn't know about Tom, it seems, is how to get to know him. "All my friends call me a wussy because I cannot go up and talk to him," she goes on. " 'Wussy, wussy, wussy.' Oh my God."
Lauren has no idea if Tom knows she likes him. He does know, of course, because Mrs. Stevens, among others, told him. But, so far, he hasn't been inclined to do anything about it, perhaps because he realizes how different he and Lauren are. In his freshman year, for instance, he dated a senior. He has been to big parties. He has been around. Lauren is emerging. Tom has emerged.
Definitely, they are different. Lauren's bedroom is decorated with frilly curtains and ecru bedsheets; Tom's has posters of cars, posters of girls and some road signs. Lauren talks to her mother about everything; Tom says he hardly talks to his parents at all. "A couple of years ago, you needed them for a lot more stuff," he says. Now, "You need them for a roof over your head, stuff like that. I don't really tell them about problems."
Instead, he goes home after school, eats whatever he can find in the refrigerator, watches TV, plays Nintendo. Late in the afternoon, his parents come home. Sometimes they seem happy, he says, sometimes they argue. "About anything," he says. "I don't really pay attention. I usually leave the room. Either that, or I turn the TV up, or I ask them to leave the room. Sometimes they quit, sometimes they get mad at me." Usually, after dinner, he goes out with his friends. Often by the time he gets home, the house is dark. He goes to his room, watches TV, does his homework. Sometimes he just thinks. He thinks about life, about how "we're out in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of the stars." He thinks about how he loves his parents but doesn't really want a life like theirs. He thinks about how things might be, and how they are now. "You're basically told not to, not to."
By the time he gets to sleep, it is often past 1 a.m., an hour of the night that Lauren rarely sees.
In the reading of "Death of a Salesman," Tom has none of the parts. Lauren does. She is The Woman, who is in a hotel room with Willy, dressed in nothing but a slip, when Biff shows up unexpectedly to tell his father he has failed his exam in math.
"All right. Where is Willy now?" Mrs. Stevens asks as the scene begins to unfold through another of Willy's hallucinations.
"In bed," says Lauren.
"In Boston," says Tom.
"That's right," Mrs. Stevens says, looking at Tom. "In Boston. Where in Boston?"
"In bed," says Lauren.
"In the hotel room," says Tom.
"That's right," Mrs. Stevens says, this time looking at Lauren. "The hotel room."
The bell rings. Lauren gathers her books. Tom leaves. Lauren follows.
"Hormones," Mrs. Stevens says with a laugh.
"WHEN THAT TEAM CAME OUT -- HE WAS the tallest, remember?" Willy says. He is having another flashback about Biff, this one back to a day when Biff still adored him, before he discovered that his father was a flawed and ordinary man.
"Oh, yes," Linda says. "And in gold."
"Like a young god," Willy says. "Hercules -- something like that. And the sun, the sun all around him. Remember how he waved to me? Right up from the field, with the representatives of three colleges standing by? And the buyers I brought, and the cheers when he came out -- Loman, Loman, Loman! God Almighty, he'll be great yet."
It is a Friday night, a varsity football game, and John Ferguson is on the field, lying still in the grass. He had been running, and out of the blue came someone else, running even harder. John kept going, the other boy leaped at him, and now John is on his back, blinking back the pain and waiting for help from the team's paramedic, a man who was on Richard Montgomery's championship football team a generation before, his dad.
"What happened?" Jack Ferguson says, bending over the kid in a helmet, seeing the number on the shirt, realizing it is his son.
"My knee," John says.
Now there is a crowd around. The knee is looked at, touched. Now John is being lifted by his father, two players and a coach. Now he is being carried off the field to an ovation, with his father cradling the bad leg.
And now, five days later, with a brace around his bruised knee, John is in Mrs. Stevens's class, reading the part of Willy Loman's other son, Happy. It is uncanny. Happy is the son who wants to become his father. John is too.
"My dad is cool," he says, "Other dads act like 'Brady Bunch' dads. My dad, he acts my age. I don't know what I'd do without my dad."
Look at John's face, big and friendly, and you see his father. Look at the way he carries himself, big and unafraid, and that is his father as well. "I keep close to him," Jack Ferguson says of his son. "I always have." He has coached John in football and baseball, and he has brought him to work at the Rockville Fire Department so many times that John is thinking of becoming a firefighter. When John was little, his father would take him to burned-down houses and tell him that's what happens when kids play with matches. Now that John is older, they have ridden together to fires, to car crashes, to worse.
"He's seen a guy hit by a Metro train," John's closest friend, Phil Hannum, says one night.
"My dad's got the video. My mom can't stand watching it," John says.
"One time, we went to a Red Lobster because there was an electrocution," Phil continues. "The floor was wet, and the guy was plugging something in . . ."
They are eating as they say this, shoveling in potato skins and fried cheese at the Bennigan's on Rockville Pike. Outside of John's father, Phil Hannum is John's closest friend. Phil is quieter than John, less confident, more complicated. He also has one of the best cars in school, a 1987 Cougar with a V-8 engine, wide tires, power windows and seat warmers.
"Nice car," says John, who has yet to get his license. "I love it." When they go out, Phil drives while John hangs out the passenger window, yelling and waving at girls.
They do this most Saturday nights. They start after dinner and go up and down Rockville Pike. They cruise through the parking lot of a shopping center called Congressional Plaza. They go to McDonald's and Bennigan's and back to Congressional Plaza. They head north to the high school and south toward the restaurants, and sometimes they keep heading south until they're in Washington.
"Sometimes we just drive back and forth to see what's going on," John says.
"Just to see how lucky we are," Phil says. "A lot of those kids just hang out on the street, not doing much. The houses are small. The neighborhoods aren't places I'd wanna live." "You hear about these killings," John says. "I wanna see one. Not the killings, but the police cars and the police line."
"Yeah," Phil says. He starts to say something else, changes his mind, takes a drink of his soda. John looks at him, and Phil mumbles something about the time at the pizza place. John shrugs. So Phil tells how they stopped at a restaurant one night, and John began making fun of a few people who seemed gay and then got in a fight with them.
"I kicked their ass all over the parking lot," John says. He is proud of this, not at all ashamed. "I hate gays," he explains. "They pissed me off."
He and Phil keep eating. After a while, he says, "I do some really immature things sometimes." He laughs.
Phil laughs too. "He does things, like he'll go up to nerds and stuff and say, 'Down, boy,' and push them around."
"Just playing around," John says. "Being intimidating. Like my dad."
"John," Phil says, "is one of the most popular kids in school."
Which is true. A week after John was injured in the football game, there is another game. He is in the stands for this one, still using a crutch to get around. He is surrounded by friends and is with a new girlfriend. At one point, he is standing with his girl, leaning on his crutch, when his father comes over with a hot dog. John takes a bite, and his father, in a gesture of kindness, tries to wipe off some mustard that John has gotten on his chin.
"Dad! Stop!" John says. He pretends to take a swing at him.
"He could beat you up real fast," the girl says to John's dad.
"Yeah?" Jack Ferguson says. And with that, lightning fast, he kicks John's crutch out from under him. And then smiles at his son.
Who smiles back. "WOULD YOU LIKE A DRINK OR SOMEthing?"
Matt Derrick, who is 17, says this to Lillian Lehrer, who is old enough to be his grandmother. They are in the cafeteria of the high school, attending a "Senior Senior Prom" that the school's community service club is putting on for senior citizens. In Mrs. Stevens's class, Matt has been reading the part of Biff. "That boy is going to be magnificent," Willy says of Biff, and he might as well be talking about Matt. The band has just finished playing "Stardust," and Matt and Lillian have just finished a dance in which Matt held Lillian's shoulders while she swayed back and forth on legs that no longer easily move.
Now Lillian is looking at Matt, saying nothing, just smiling and seeming as if she might cry. He brings her some punch. He is a young man with a constant smile, good grades, plans for college, dreams of playing major league baseball and a girlfriend who is president of the community service club. "I see him getting less self-confident because of the pressures of school," his mother, Linda Whitcomb, worries, but on this afternoon, he seems completely at ease. He kisses Lillian on the cheek and goes off to dance with someone else.
It is something to see, this prom. Several hundred students have shown up, and so have several hundred senior citizens. They have come by bus and van from apartment complexes and nursing homes throughout Montgomery County. Some of the men are in ties, some are in hats, a few are wearing slippers. Most of the women are in dresses, some are draped in shawls, some are wearing diamond rings that they were given a long time ago, when their lives were uncertain and still filled with options. Now they are widows and widowers who know how things can work out. One woman, in a pink dress with a lace collar, can't seem to stop crying when she sees what the students have done.
"They're so cute," one student says, watching the old people dance.
"They're so happy," says her friend.
"Like there's no tomorrow," the first girl says.
Matt is wearing a tie and white shirt that his mother ironed for the occasion. He dances with Neva Goldthorpe, who has 14 great-grandchildren. "There wasn't smoking, there wasn't drinking, there wasn't drugs," she says, thinking back to her prom. "We danced cheek-to-cheek."
He dances with Dorothy Allen, who has seen two of her children die and has been a widow for 21 years. "They've got big surprises coming up," she says of the students. "Lots of surprises."
He dances again with Lillian Lehrer, who was married for 50 years. He takes her shoulders, and she begins to sway.
"Sixteen," she says, thinking back. "That's when you're so young."
THE CLIMAX approaches. Biff is in the hotel room now, his childhood dropping away by the second as he stares at a stammering man who has suddenly become contemptible. "She's nothing to me, Biff. I was lonely," Willy pleads. "Liar!" Biff screams. "You fake! You phony little fake! You fake!" At that moment, his childhood falls away completely and he cries his first tears as a man. And Mrs. Stevens shouts, "Epiphany!"
Her students look at her. "Epiphany!" she repeats. "It's a realization. A sudden realization."
A few students write this down. Judy Swope, who just turned 17, doesn't. She is the girl in the black leather jacket. She doesn't write anything down, and she hardly ever talks. But more than anyone else in Mrs. Stevens's class, she knows what an epiphany is. Last year she was falling apart, and this year she isn't.
No one knows this, though. She is a shadow around school, rarely laughing, always quiet. She doesn't go to football games. She doesn't go to any after-school activities. She likes heavy-metal music, nothing else, dark clothes, nothing else. Every day at the end of fifth period, when the bell rings and her classes end for the day, she heads off to Rockville Pike, smokes a cigarette, climbs on a bus and disappears to an after-school job at a pet shop. "She's real different than anybody else," Phil Hannum says of her. "It's like she's trying to get people to dislike her."
Actually, it's more that she's not sure if she and the other students have very much in common. "I am different," she agrees. She has a mother who she says is insistent on her children's success, a father who she sometimes thinks has given up on her, and a legacy of failures from seventh grade on. In ninth grade, when other students seemed so busy trying to fit in, she was already on the fringe, getting grades that were mostly D's and E's. In 10th grade, when she got all E's on one report card, she laughed about it and thought about suicide. Her life outside of school, meanwhile, was characterized by an overwhelming feeling of disconnection.
There was a time when her grandfather, whom she had never met, fell gravely ill. Her father insisted she visit him, so they drove to West Virginia. "It was like 9 or 10 hours," she says, describing her memories of the trip, "and then he didn't even die. It was such a waste."
Then another relative did die, a great-grandmother. About that, she remembers going to the funeral, looking at the body and, instead of feeling sadness, thinking how nicely the dead woman's hair had been prepared. She wondered if they had used hair spray, if they would actually put hair spray on a dead person, so she leaned close, as if to say goodbye, and blew, and blew again, and decided they must have because her hair hardly moved at all.
And that was how Judy Swope's mind was working. She was thinking about everything, silly and not so silly, sifting, wondering. She tried to imagine the face of God. She tried to envision the entire universe, how it couldn't go on forever, how it had to end somewhere, with some kind of a wall, but what would be on the other side? She would think of these things, wanting to know the answers, and then she would go to school, get bored, cut class, bring home report cards that caused nothing but sighs and silence.
Then, last school year, a few things happened.
Her grandfather did die. Back they went to West Virginia, but this time it was different. "It was more immediate," she says. "It was my father seeing his father dead, and someday I'm going to see my father dead. And then, at the end, my father wasn't close to him, and he went over and hugged him, hugged a dead body, and said, 'I love you. I'm sorry I didn't tell you when you were alive,' And then he started crying, which is really rare for my dad, and I did too."
She also was put in a math class taught by a teacher named Judy Green, who looked at the new student, her dark clothes, her clouded face, and didn't immediately write her off. "She just spent a lot of time with me," Judy Swope says of Ms. Green. "She was the first teacher that actually, like, cared." By the end of the year she still had enough failures to cause her to spend part of this year repeating 11th grade. But in math she got an A, and when she brought home her report card, her mother hugged her and took her out to dinner to celebrate.
Now, so far this year, her grades have been A's and B's. She is not sure what the turning point was -- maybe it was the A, maybe it was simply having someone take an interest in her, no questions asked -- but the difference is there. Outwardly, she is still content to dress like a shadow, but inwardly, where all of her questions about herself had been turning over and over, she says, "I feel a lot better. I feel a lot different. I feel a lot happier."
Her epiphany, she says, was this: "I realized I wasn't stupid. I guess somewhere in the back of my head, I thought I was."
THE TIME HAS COME FOR WILLY LOMAN to die. The illusions have won. The only way for Willy to save his family, he has decided, is to kill himself. It is nighttime. His family is upstairs. He gets in his car, hits the gas, drives off. He will leave behind a wife who is sagging from years of accommodation, two troubled sons and an undistinguished life that didn't go according to plan.
"Willy?" says Tonya Palmer, reading the part of Linda.
"Pop!" says Matt Derrick, who is reading the part of Biff.
"Screeeeeech," says someone in the back of the room, embellishing the moment by imitating the sound of squealing brakes. "Kapow!!!"
And so ends the life of Willy Loman as he lived it in Room 223.
Time for lunch.
THERE IS A TEST, OF COURSE, TO SEE what the students have learned. "DO NOT WRITE ON THIS PAPER," it begins and goes from there.
"According to Willy," it asks, "what kind of man gets ahead in the business world?"
"In a well-written essay, using three examples, prove that Biff is actually the central character of the play."
"Charley" is: "A. Willy's neighbor; B. Biff asked him for a job . . ."
In other words, the test is designed to see if during the last two weeks the students have been paying attention. Nowhere are there questions about the deeper lessons of the play, whether the students have learned anything about themselves.
Maybe they have too. Maybe the rantings of an old man have somehow touched them. Maybe Tonya Palmer has discovered something new to say to a classmate who boasts of needle marks, and John Ferguson has absorbed something about compassion. More generally, as Mrs. Stevens had hoped, maybe something has been learned about tragedy, and fallibility, and the fine line between an illusion and a dream.
And then again, maybe not. When you're 16, after all -- no matter how much things have changed over the years -- you're still that. Sixteen.
The day after the test, Mrs. Stevens shows her students the video of "Death of a Salesman." It is the version starring Dustin Hoffman, whose first big film, "The Graduate," came out seven years before most of Mrs. Stevens's students were born. Now, in "Death of a Salesman," he is gray-haired and bewildered and a day away from death. At one point, as he stumbles around outside, his wife tries to defend what he has become.
"I don't say he's a great man," she begins.
John Ferguson is stretching his leg as she says this; Phil Hannum is rubbing his neck.
"Willy Loman never made a lot of money," she continues.
Lauren Funkhouser is staring at Tom Farrell, who is resting his head on his desk.
"His name was never in the paper."
Around the room, fingers drum, feet tap, eyes shift from the TV to the broken clock.
"He's not the finest character that ever lived."
Any minute now, the bell is going to ring.
"But he's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him."
Here comes the bell . . .
"So attention must be paid."
Maybe it does. But not here. Not now. Not yet.