Two days ago, I asked my adult (college graduate) grandson if he knew who Helen Keller was, He told me he had “heard of her.” Then I asked my son with the severe learning problems. He laughed and said, “Yep, I know who she is.” I was relieved. So, I asked him to tell me and he told me that she was part of the joke. Joke? “What joke?” I asked him. And he told me that when someone doesn’t clean something right on his job, the other guys will say, “Who are you? Helen Keller?” That’s all he knew of her…..This is worse for me than recognizing that the music of my much loved and still listened to Beatles will disappear into history as my generation dies off.
Helen Keller, or more accurately, her teacher, Annie Sullivan, has been a personal hero of mine for decades. When I was a child care worker, working in the institutions, I used to say that Annie Sullivan should be the hero of all child care workers. For those reading this who have no idea who either woman is – would such people be reading this? – a quick Google search will tell you plenty. For everyone else, I am going to assume that we are each familiar with “The Miracle Worker” – the fifty one year old movie, if not the play, or the now 111 year old book that both were based on: “The Story of My Life.”
The NY Times obituary* for Helen had this paragraph: “After Helen’s illness, her infancy and early childhood were a succession of days of frustration, manifest by outbursts of anger and fractious behavior. ‘A wild, unruly child’ who kicked, scratched and screamed was how she afterward described herself.”
Hmm….I wonder how we’d approach the care of Helen today.
Here is Helen’s description of how Annie did it:
“We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Someone was drawing water** and my teacher placed my hand under the spout.
“As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me.
“I knew then that ‘w-a-t-e-r’ meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free. There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that in time could be swept away.”
Helen had an awakening. She had a realization. She woke up. She got it. She changed. She was freed.
And “In 1964 she was one of 30 Americans on whom President Johnson conferred the nation’s highest civilian recognition, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.”
Can you imagine that award for any of our kids? I certainly can and hope to see the day.
I am who I am today hugely due to, as I have said many times, the gifts of themselves that Aunt Rita and Msgr. Christopher Huntington gave to me. It wasn’t behavior management or medication or therapy on their parts that helped me.
It was simply teaching me real truths, in the context of loving me for real.
I have had many who cared about me; many who were attached to me. But these two freed me.
That is what our model needs to be: teaching with the goal of freeing. If behavior management is needed, fine. If therapy is helpful, good. If medication moves us along that road, then by all means let’s use it. But those things are not ends in themselves – they haven’t the power to free anyone. Not because those who need them are broken, but because these things are only tools. Tools are needed to build, but they, of themselves, build nothing.
Coming to recognize the truth – not all truth now, but simply the relevant truth – is what frees people. All people. Including and especially our kids. Annie Sullivan is the model. Not psychiatry, not psychology, not social work – tools all, but tools only.
Helen Keller was the incredible beneficiary of Annie Sullivan’s belief in Helen’s wholeness.
I hate to see that witness lost to history.
It remains too real.