Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke in 1962’s “The Miracle Worker” by William Gibson When I was a young girl in the 60’s, I loved to watch old movies on Saturday afternoon. Some of these movies made a deep impact on me for one reason or another. I remember watching one of my first Shakespeare plays on Saturday morning–the 1935 version of Midsummer Night’s Dream starring Olivia de Havilland as Hermia, Andy Rooney as Puck and James Cagney, yes, James Cagney, as Bottom. I didn’t know any of those actors then, but I was fascinated by their actions. I barely understood a word of what was said but I was mesmerized by the words. So many movies during those halcyon days, when my viewing choices may have been fewer but have rarely been better, helped form my love not only of film but also of story telling and the theater, psychology and human development, justice and mercy–movies like Citizen Kane and Rebecca, Stage Door and All about Eve, To Kill a Mockingbird and 12 Angry Men.
However, there is one movie that told a story which stands out above the rest in my mind, a story that helped solidify a desire that was already growing in me before I was a decade old–the desire to teach. That story is told in the 1962 film The Miracle Worker, the story of Helen Keller and her teacher Annie Sullivan. I can’t remember a time I didn’t want to be a teacher, but watching Annie struggle to teach Helen, to give some meaning to the child’s dark and silent life by giving her the gift of language and in return seeing her own life change from dark to light, caused the stirrings of desire to leap into a consuming passion.
I was reminded yesterday of this great story and its impact on my career choice when I went to see our local community theater’s production of William Gibson’s play. I’ve seen it several times over the years and the movie many times, but something about the intimacy of the small theater and the fine acting by my friend who was playing Annie and another friend’s young daughter who played Helen, brought back the force the story and its impact on my life in a way I hadn’t felt in many years. This time, however, I have been a teacher for thirty years, a bit jaded about my profession, especially these days, especially in North Carolina, but watching Helen’s face at the water pump as the water flows over her hands and she finally understands what words are, seeing Annie’s face when Helen comes to her with her new found knowledge and signs that special word “teacher” renewed my love of teaching.
One passage in particular especially rang true to me last night. In the scene Annie is discouraged because she has brought Helen to the threshold of understanding language, has struggled mightily to bring her there, but words are still just a finger play to Helen and time is running out. Annie looks down at the deaf, blind and mute child with such yearning and says these words:
I wanted to teach you—oh, everything the earth is full of, Helen, everything on it that’s ours for a wink and it’s gone, and what we are on it, the—light we bring to it and leave behind in—words, why, you can see five thousand years back in a light of words, everything we feel, think, know—and share, in words, so not a soul is in darkness, or done with, even in the grave. And I know, I know, one word and I can—put the world in your hand—and whatever it is to me, I won’t take less!
Is it any wonder that even way back when I was not much older than Helen was that day the world opened up to her, that my world opened up to me? That day I knew what I wanted to do–help people understand the beauty and power of words. When I got a little older, one of the first biographies I read was Helen Keller’s autobiography, “The Story of My Life.” I chose that book because I had seen the movie and been so intrigued by Annie Sullivan and how it must feel to teach a child. Reading the story from Helen’s perspective fueled my passion for teaching. In this passage Helen describes that day at the water pump:
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 could in time be swept away.*
I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.
I learned a great many new words that day. I do not remember what they all were; but I do know that mother, father, sister, teacher were among them–words that were to make the world blossom for me, “like Aaron’s rod, with flowers.” It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib at the close of that eventful day and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come.
Some people struggle to know what to do with their lives, to find themselves, but I knew long ago as a little girl watching TV on a Saturday afternoon, when I could have been outside playing, that some day I would be a teacher. As much as I have wanted to escape my destiny over the years, it’s clear that I am where I belong, doing what I was born to do. What William Wordsworth said is true, “The child is father of the man.”
Mother of the woman, too.