This summer, I rewatched the movie The Miracle Worker, the old black and white version with Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke, a favorite of my eldest daughter Eliza.The film recounts the education of Helen Keller, a woman left deaf and blind since early childhood as a result of a high fever and her teacher, Annie Sullivan. The particular clip that stands out for me takes place just after Sullivan’s arrival during her first experience at a Keller family dinner. (You could actually watch it if you search “Helen Keller Food Scene” on Youtube, though I am not sure it has stood the test of time in terms of modern sensibilities.) The scene depicts a ten-year old Helen circling the table grabbing food right off people’s plates. Helen’s parents seem oblivious to Helen’s bad behavior, talking over and around her as she slams dishes, shouts, and stuffs food into her mouth. Annie chastises them for their permissiveness and low expectations and takes Helen away to another room. What follows is an epic battle royale of equals as Annie insists that Helen eat at the table with a spoon and Helen runs about the room in aggressive defiance. Chairs are thrown, dishes are broken, food and water are weaponized, and the two physically tussle until Annie finally gets Helen to sit and eat with a spoon. “Good girl,” she signs onto the palm of Helen's outstretched hand.
I love this clip because in it I see (or perhaps surmise) the best of what Falmouth Academy and its talented and dedicated teachers have to offer. So much of what goes on between Helen and Annie is on display on this campus in some form. What strikes me most about that clip is the relentless commitment of the combatants. Each recognizes the significance of the battle being waged, and each appreciates the far-reaching implications of the outcome. For Helen, what’s at stake is no less than her way of life. The beneficiary of low expectations, she has been shown the path of least resistance. The rules of the game are relatively simple: take what you want and if anyone tries to stop you, pitch a fit. It is a comfortable, convenient, and easily won sort of happiness which, given her rather difficult circumstances, is worth fighting for. At this point, Helen has no conception that a richer, more fulfilling happiness is available to her. She wants the food and Annie is keeping her from getting it.
Annie’s investment in the struggle is even more impressive because at any time, she could have walked away from this child citing any variety of legitimate reasons for her departure, but she did not and because she did not, Helen Keller, as we all know, ultimately emerges as the icon of perseverance in the face of insurmountable obstacles. Perhaps on a more modest scale, we at Falmouth Academy are confronted with similar challenges and day after day, year after year, we too choose to confront them. We too elect not to walk away. The clip serves as a gentle and inspiring reminder to me that teaching is hard work but that buried within the difficulty of confronting its challenges reside its rewards.
Please indulge me as I force a few more analogies. First, Annie does not waste time blaming her various predecessors for Helen’s lack of self-discipline. The fact that Helen’s education to this point has been misguided makes her job harder, and the film does suggest that Annie invites the Kellers to support and reinforce her efforts. She also recognizes, however, that this is the Helen she gets, that the past several years are not going anywhere, and that focusing on them is a waste of time. Second, Annie never gets discouraged by Helen’s shortcomings, nor does she blame Helen for whatever failures she may encounter in her attempts to teach her. She never wishes Helen could see a little better or hear a little better, or simply be a smarter kid altogether. Instead, she looks for ways in. Ways of reaching Helen that cut through the barriers that may stand between teacher and learner. She does not expect Helen to be able to communicate after one lesson, but she does expect her to eat with a spoon. Third, Annie demands excellence from her charge and refuses to give in, even when doing so would make her life so much more pleasant. If Annie simply allowed Helen to sample the food on her plate, the ensuing row would be avoided. Annie would have been more popular in Helen’s eyes, the Kellers would have liked Annie more, she still might have been able to make inroads in her attempts to teach Helen basic communication skills, and above all, it would have been quiet, and she would have been clean and dry.
The fourth lesson requires me to move beyond the clip I shared which depicts a rather exaggerated, even comical vision of demanding excellence. When it comes to engendering excellence in students, to demand is just one third of the job. What the clip does not show is Annie’s commitment to inspiring her young student. She does so through her unshakeable faith in Helen’s potential and the lengths to which Annie will go to in order to tap it. Here at FA, we inspire our students in the same ways, but our students are also inspired by our visible passion for our disciplines and the contributions we make in growing a climate of intellectualism. Limiting ourselves to merely demanding excellence without also inspiring it will result in a commensurately limited learning community, as will the converse, relying on inspiration alone. Neither Mr. Gradgrind, from Dickens’ Hard Times, nor Robin Williams’ Mr. Keeting in Dead Poet’s Society is likely to get it done with today’s kids.
What a tough job. If we are demanding and inspirational, isn’t it a reasonable expectation that excellence will follow? Alas, this was not the case for Annie Sullivan. No matter how much she inspired Helen, no matter how high she set the expectations, it would have been silly for her to expect that Helen should therefore suddenly be able to communicate like other children. Instead, Annie nurtured excellence in Helen by designing learning experiences that moved Helen from the known to the new, ones that enabled her to make connections between her inside world and her outside world. She knew that Helen could learn and that she wanted to learn, but it was her job to construct the scaffolding that Helen needed to get to excellence. If Helen’s task was to learn that the word water represented in some form the liquid running over her hand, and if after Annie’s first attempt at conveying that message, Helen did not come to that conclusion, then Annie’s path was clear. It was time to construct a new method or path by which to get to that particular form of excellence.
Now very few of us have been so lucky as to work with one student without the burden of a particular time constraint. In this Annie was fortunate. But, I would also guess that very few of us ever worked with a student with Helen’s limitations. As I consider each new school year, this story renews my faith that all Falmouth Academy students are capable of excellence and that I, a teacher and a leader, by demanding, inspiring, and nurturing excellence in them and in all of us, can introduce them to a kind of happiness, marked by pride, self-discipline, and intellectual fulfillment, that is richer and more rewarding than the fleeting, easily won kinds of happiness that we might otherwise choose. In viewing it, I am also grateful for the dedication, creativity, warmth, humor, empathy, and integrity, and expertise of my fellow Falmouth Academy faculty.