Lesson 22 on Learning by Example
One of the shortened texts that I came across soon after I started teaching was The Life of Helen Keller. This biography focused on her childhood and adolescence, so it suited my groups well.
For those of you who haven’t come across the story it takes place in the Deep South in the early part of the 20th century. It tells of Helen, a bright, healthy child struck down by scarlet fever at two years old, becoming deaf blind overnight. In despair the family try to keep her lovingly cared for at home and indulge her, but by the time she is five, she has become unmanageable. The medical profession can only advise an institution, but these are so grim the parents approach the Boston School for the Blind to ask for a teacher.
They send Annie Sullivan, a partially sighted teenager and an ex-pupil. Annie comes to the wealthy household from a tough East Coast upbringing. She is horrified to find Helen living like a wild animal, unkempt and helping herself to food from other peoples’ plates at table, eating with her hands. She realises Helen’s only hope is to learn to communicate.
Then comes the most dramatic part of the biography. Annie persuades the parents to let her have sole charge of Helen in a small house in the grounds, where she battles with her day and night. She denies her her favourite toys and foods, until Helen will let her spell a word into her hand. In a gripping scene, she repeatedly thrusts Helen’s hand under the yard pump, while spelling out the word “Water”. Suddenly it clicks and Helen chases round hitting other objects and demanding Annie spell them too. Then she stops and hits her own chest. Annie spells “Helen”. She pauses, then hits Annie.
And Annie spells out “Teacher”.
I used this book with all my classes, and an old film of the story too, whenever I could get hold of it. It worked on every level. It was a true story (with photos) of a person facing huge difficulties. It provoked heated feelings and discussion. Particularly they argued about the parents being too kind and Annie too cruel.
“Miss, Annie had to do it like that. Nobody else could help. She had to make Helen pay attention. If her parents just let her go on and on, they would die and noone would care. She would be on her own. Even if they were rich, she would still be locked up. She would be shut off!”
The difference between Helen as a feral child and Helen as a communicative human being, always prompted debate about what made being human special and why it mattered to be part of a community and a society. Forget Romeo and Juliet, after Helen Keller, we could have written dissertations on moral philosophy!
And best of all, it spelt out the relationship between teacher and taught. Annie was not a nurse or a relative or a friend, though her love and care was manifest. Her job was to teach – to help Helen learn in the best way she could. That’s what Annie was paid for. It was a specific, demanding and noble task.
Many years later when I worked in teacher education, I always stressed to my students that they must be very clear about that role. It is so easy for a teacher to allow their own emotional needs to lure them into muddled thinking, especially when working with lonely, damaged children. Such children don’t deserve to be given false hopes, only to be abandoned or rejected yet again.
I often thought of Annie Sullivan, and the spelling of that single word, encompassing just how specific, but how world-altering that honourable role could be.