In my last bit of teaching experience I was introduced to the movie The Miracle Worker, the story of Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan. The special education teacher I was working with taught the students some sign language and told them that the movie was one of the things that inspired her to become a special ed teacher many years ago. I loved the movie also, but did not realize that it was actually based on- besides the life of Helen Keller-a Broadway play written about her life. The writer, William Gibson has just recently passed away, but his written creation has gone on to influence at least one person that I know directly, and now also myself. I have watched the movie, and would recommend it to anyone. It the sort of story that stays with you indefinitely, especially if you work anywhere near schools.
I’m not sure how closely the play and movie stay to the actual learning experiences of Helen and her teacher. If it is accurate, it does in many ways go against some of what happens in the school system. These are the main lessons that I take away from this story.
- There were many, including Helen’s own family, who assumed she was mentally deficient and incapable of reading, writing, speaking with the outside world. Until the moment she became capable of communicating in ways they themselves were familiar, they continued to hold these assumptions.
- Annie Sullivan maintained a belief in Helen’s capabilities even in the face of many failures, and part of this belief stemmed from her own experiences as a visually impaired student.
- The ways in which Annie Sullivan “reached” Helen were fairly unconventional, so much so that she risked losing her job for doing what she thought best for her student.
- Although Helen learned fairly quickly how to sign she didn’t truly understand what it was she was doing, or what it was she had learned, until she could connect this knowledge to what she knew of the outside world and her own experience.
- The relationship that developed between Helen and Annie was life-long; it did not end once Helen learned how to speak, read and write.
Of course, the movie does not take place in a school. Annie Sullivan, although she was a teacher, wanted first and foremost for Helen to live an independent life, and did everything in her power to make that a reality. If Helen Keller had been placed in a school, I am almost positive we would not know who she was today.