by Tina Olesen
Annie Sullivan was a young teacher from the Perkins Institution who demonstrated exceptional courage and tenacity in moral training. The story of how Annie broke through to her famous pupil Helen Keller as a child is so remarkable that it bears examination (although this is not an endorsement of Helen’s highly controversial views in religion and politics as an adult).
Helen lost both her sight and her hearing after a babyhood illness. Her father, Captain Keller, and his wife hired Anne Sullivan to teach their blind and deaf daughter. Up until the time Annie came, Helen was undisciplined and pitied. Her parents felt sorry for her and mostly let her have her own way, which resulted in her behaving like an animal and having a tantrum whenever she could not have what she wanted. In her autobiography, Helen admits: “I was strong, active, indifferent to consequences. I knew my own mind well enough and always had my own way, even if I had to fight tooth and nail for it.” [i]
In the 1962 film “The Miracle Worker” (based on the true story) Annie’s character bravely protested Helen’s treatment by her parents:
“Pity for this tyrant? Is there anything she wants she doesn’t get? I’ll tell you what I pity… that the sun won’t rise and set for her all her life, and every day you’re telling her it will. What you and your pity do will destroy her, Captain Keller…
“Mrs. Keller, I don’t think Helen’s greatest handicap is deafness or blindness. I think it’s your love and pity. All these years you’ve felt so sorry for her you’ve kept her like a pet. Well, even a dog you housebreak… It’s less trouble to feel sorry for her than it is to teach her anything better…” [ii]
Not only was Annie up against Helen’s moral rebellion, but she had to stand against Helen’s parents and their indulgence, which harmed Helen terribly. In the film, Annie’s character pleaded with Helen’s father:
“…To let [Helen] have her own way in everything is a lie – to her … You’ve got to stand between that lie and her.” [iii]
Annie took Helen out of the family home altogether for a time, so that Helen’s parents would not be able to interfere in the disciplinary process. At first Helen objected vehemently to Annie’s discipline, and they had many battles. Annie would appear severe to Helen because Helen had neither experience nor understanding of moral authority. Her parents had abdicated their responsibility to discipline her, and their pity of her encouraged her to pity herself. In her dark hole of self-pity, Helen lashed out at everyone around her and trampled over people to get her own way. Thankfully Annie did not abdicate her responsibility, however, and she held Helen accountable for her actions. She did not pity her or allow her to pity herself. She had expectations of Helen: “I treat her like a seeing child because I ask her to see, I expect her to see…” [iv]
Annie proved the more persistent of the two, and when Helen began to obey her it was not out of love, but out of resignation. This obedience, however, paved the way for Helen to learn language. Annie tirelessly finger spelled words into Helen’s hand, teaching her a finger alphabet, but Helen did not immediately understand that these symbols had meaning; that they stood for something.
Finally one day, Helen had a break through. She understood that W-A-T-E-R spelled into her hand stood for the wet substance flowing out of the pump. Annie described it:
“We went out to the pump-house, and I made Helen hold her mug under the spout while I pumped. As the cold water gushed forth, filling the mug, I spelled “w-a-t-e-r” in Helen’s free hand. The word coming so close upon the sensation of cold water rushing over her hand seemed to startle her. She dropped the mug and stood as one transfixed. A new light came into her face. She spelled “water” several times. Then she dropped on the ground and asked for its name and pointed to the pump and the trellis, and suddenly turning round she asked for my name. I spelled “Teacher.” … All the way back to the house she was highly excited, and learned the name of every object she touched… She has flitted from object to object, asking the name of everything and kissing me for very gladness. Last night when I got in bed, she stole into my arms of her own accord and kissed me for the first time, and I thought my heart would burst, so full was it of joy.” [v]
When it dawned on Helen what Annie had been trying to teach her all along, she embraced her as “Teacher.” Helen understood that Annie’s actions toward her were loving, even though she had not recognized them at first as being loving. The little girl was filled with gratitude and love in return. By her treatment of Helen, Annie modelled unselfishness and introduced Helen to the joy of caring for others.
Annie wrote: “I have thought about it a great deal, and the more I think, the more certain I am that obedience is the gateway through which knowledge, yes, and love, too, enter the mind of the child.” [vi]
The book of Proverbs bears witness:
- “The rod and reproof give wisdom, but a child left to himself brings shame to his mother.” (Proverbs 29:15)
- “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.” (Proverbs 22:15)
- “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” (Proverbs 13:24)
Children experience love and security when they are lovingly disciplined. Moral training paves the way for all other learning.
[i] From: “The Story of My Life.” Parts I & II by Helen Keller (1880-1968); Part III from the letters and reports of Anne Mansfield Sullivan (ca.1867-1936); edited by John Albert Macy. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, , c. 1902, 1903, 1905. Accessed at http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/keller/life/part-I.html
[ii] From the film: “The Miracle Worker”, 1962 Playtime Productions, Inc.,USA.
[v] “Part III.” from the letters and reports of Anne Mansfield Sullivan (ca.1867-1936), edited by John Albert Macy.
From: “The Story of My Life.” Parts I & II by Helen Keller (1880-1968); Part III from the letters and reports of Anne Mansfield Sullivan (ca.1867-1936); edited by John Albert Macy. New York: Doubleday, Page & Company, c. 1902, 1903, 1905. Accessed at http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/keller/life/part-III.html#L386