I have spent the last few weeks torturing myself over the decision I made to teach my 11th graders the play All My Sons during this war. It’s a fabulous play, that many Israeli teachers teach their students for the literature section of the National Exams (Bagrut). It was written by Arthur Miller shortly after World War Two, and among other things, it speaks about the effects the war had on one family, the Kellers. The father of the family, Joe Keller owns a factory that was turned into a weapons production factory during the war (as were many other factories). The story revolves around a decision Joe made during the war to send broken cylinder heads ( a piece of a warplane) to the army. His decision, which he claimed was made under intense pressure as he didn’t want to lose his war contract with the government, had terrible consequences. Twenty-one pilots were killed, and his own son, Larry killed himself when he found out what his father had done. Joe places the blame on partner Steeve Deever who is found guilty and is serving his time in prison as the play opens.
The play takes place a few years after the event, when Larry’s old girlfriend, Anne, comes to visit Chris, Larry’s brother, whom she intends to marry. As the play proceeds, Joe’s crime is revealed, and we see the effect it has on his son Chris, his wife Kate, and Joe himself.
The play is highly suspenseful and teaches the students about taking responsibility for their actions, the truth about the American Dream, and the effects one decision can have on so many others. But that is not why I chose to teach the play this year. I chose to teach the play because of one particular speech Chris makes towards the end. During the play, we learn that Chris was the commander of a unit in the army during the war. His entire unit was killed, and Chris still suffers from survivor’s guilt. But he explains how the soldiers in his unit died protecting each other. Towards the end of the play, he explains that during the war soldiers lived with honor. It was only after the war, when he returned home, that he learned that people only care about themselves and making money. I had a discussion in class about the difference in behavior we are seeing among our nation during the war as opposed to before the war. We spoke about the unity, love, and respect we are all beginning to experience in Israel as a result of the war.
But the play was not simple for all of the students. I saw a difference in behavior in class as I was teaching it. Certain students were putting their heads on their desks, and not participating in class discussions. There was a point where I began to regret my decision, so I decided to put the question to the class. I offered to stop teaching it, and to learn another play. But the girls unanimously decided that they wanted to keep going, so we did.
By the end of the play, I saw that while some reacted very positively, others didn’t. I decided to give them an assignment. One of the requirements for the National Exam is for the students to write essays about the literature pieces they learn. So, I gave them the following question to answer for their essay:
Do you think that All My Sons is an appropriate play to learn while we are going through a war?
Their essays were enlightening.
Some strongly felt that this play was the perfect play to learn during the war. They felt that they could relate to the characters and that it had important moral lessons for wartime. It talked about doing the right thing despite the pressures of war, the effects war can have on people, and how we need to move on with our lives despite the horror we experience. It taught them about survivor’s guilt which is an important consequence of the war and perhaps something they are seeing or will see in the near future. And perhaps most importantly, it gave them a forum to talk about the war during class.
But others didn’t feel the same way. They didn’t like reading about so much death, the character Larry who never came home, the negative consequences of war, and the characters who suffered. They felt the play added to their already stressful existence.
I still wonder if I did the right thing by teaching this play this year. We often don’t realize that some of the victims of this war are sitting in our classrooms, on our couches at home, and at our kitchen tables. The Department of Education considered not having teens go back to school during the war. Instead, teens would volunteer with agricultural projects, making and packaging food, and watching children of families who have fathers on the battlefronts. I am still not sure what the right answers are to these questions. I guess we’ll know when this is all over, and we see the results of our decisions in this generation of teens. I just hope we get it right.