Willy Loman’s son Biff has his ups and downs. Biff is the star of the high school football team, is well liked, and anticipates a bright future. Yes, Biff has bullied Bernard the smart, small, supportive neighbor; yes, Biff has stolen construction material from a nearby site; yes, Biff absconded with a fountain pen during a job interview. But Biff is going to be all right, he’s going to get it together, he’s going to go to summer school and pass math, get a good job, have a future, be successful.
Or is he?
Of course not. Because when Biff goes to visit his dad to explain about the failed math final, Biff confirms that Willy is a philanderer. (Surely Biff suspected his father’s infidelity before.) Biff’s mom is home darning socks. While Willy is giving expensive nylon stockings to his paramour. Biff can’t process this realization. As a proximate result of learning that his dad is unfaithful, Bill determines that he won’t go to summer school, won’t retake math, won’t be graduated with his class. Without a high school degree, Biff ends up kicking around out west, drifting from one dead end job to another, even ending up in jail for a few months.
Because Biff learns that his dad can’t keep it in his pants, therefore Biff gives up, quits trying, ends up underperforming. Nah. Arthur Miller is smarter than that. Give the author some credit. Not everyone got to marry Marilyn Monroe for goodness sake! The author gives us any number of examples and reasons for Biff’s enduring failures. Willy’s infidelity might be the proverbial straw, but Biff was never going to argue cases before the supreme court. Bernard will go on to a successful law career because Bernard studied hard, was smart to begin with and—stop me if you knew I was going to say this—Bernard had the proper underpinnings, ethics and good judgment communicated to him throughout his life. Biff’s foundation was built on sand: a firm handshake is one thing, knowing the material is another level altogether. Biff can’t compete with Bernard.
Arthur Miller and Marilyn Monroe
Needless to say I want to go from Willy’s dalliance in the hotel room and Biff’s subsequent come apart to make points about college admissions and parenting. Here’s what never happens: Timmy is denied at his first choice, highly-rejective college. As a result, Timmy spends one semester at North Cornstalk Community Drooling College before dropping out to marry a woman with three children from four previous husbands, living in a double wide, drinking whisky out of the bottle during the day, working at the mill at night, and dropping 30 IQ points.
What actually occurs is that Timmy goes to his second choice school and the Earth continue to revolve in its prescribed orbit. Specifically, being denied at Amherst and matriculating at Middlebury, being rejected at Bowdoin and enrolling at Colby, or getting a “no thank you” from the University of Michigan and attending the University of Indiana are not life changing results. Middlebury, Colby, and the University of Indiana are all extraordinary institutions. Arguing that those three schools are in some meaningful way “worse” than Amherst, Bowdoin, and Michigan is comparable to pontificating about how many angels can dance on the head of a piñata. A tremendous education is to be had at any of those schools. And besides, rejection doesn’t define you; overcoming setbacks–Middlebury can hardly be described as a setback–is what a productive life is about.
Unless your entire existence is defined by bad advice and a feckless role model festering on wrong ideas. In which case you can blame seeing your dad in a hotel room with a tootsie for your subsequent underperformance.
Which brings us from college admissions stuff back to the even more critical topic of how to raise healthy kids in a toxic culture that equates good parenting with an acceptance email from a selective campus. I would not presume to tell anyone not to have an extramarital affair. That’s not for me to say. I don’t pretend to have much insight into my own marriage never mind anyone else’s. But I am supposed to know something about bringing up kids so I will gently remind my readers: if you smoke cigarettes, your children are more likely to acquire that habit; if you drink and drive, the statistics say your kids may also; and if you deceive your spouse, your kids are going to find out. Don’t ask me how they know, but they do.
The result of communicating to your kids that deception is acceptable in your family is unlikely to get you the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and six Tony Awards. To the contrary, you may end up with a real life Biff—conflicted, unhappy, unforgiving. And underachieving for the rest of his life.