Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Teaching the Miracle Worker - Part Two

For and Against; Closeness and Clash—in an American Play and Us

To show the effect of the Aesthetic Realism teaching method I now describe what my ninth grade English classes learned as we read and discussed William Gibson's 1959 play The Miracle Worker. In it we meet the child Helen Keller who as a baby is able to hear and see, but through a terrible illness at one and a half becomes deaf and blind. Her life changes with the coming to her home in Tuscumbia, Alabama of a young woman from Boston, Annie Sullivan, who as a child was herself blind. After tremendous struggle, frustration, times she is ready to give up—and often with opposition from Helen’s own family—Annie Sullivan succeeds in teaching Helen Keller how to comprehend language, freeing the little girl from what Miss Keller described years later in her autobiography as “my long night.”(Keller, 9)

This play is a rich study in two big opposites which I have learned from Aesthetic Realism are at the very basis of drama—for and against or closeness and clash. And these are the same opposites my students were thirsty to understand. I wanted them to see they could be against something in the world accurately in order to be for the world and respecting it, not just be against everything sloppily, in a way that made them ashamed and hurt them. I knew it was an emergency for them to see that in order to respect ourselves, we have to be for and against things beautifully, in a way that makes us proud; and we can learn from this play about how! And as they saw that these are opposites that make this play so powerful they were able to read with deep comprehension, eager to discuss it, and to write clear, deep essays about it.

As we began the play I read to the class these sentences from Eli Siegel’s landmark lecture of 1951 “Aesthetic Realism as Beauty: Drama”:

In the drama there has to be some feeling of fight, however faint; but the fight is never of strangers; there is always, when drama is most dramatic, a fight of people who are for each other….The drama occurs any time we have this feeling of closeness and clash. Those are the two things: the cl’s: closeness and clash, with the clash and the closeness intertwining. It occurs in ever so many ways.

They saw that in Act Two, for and against, closeness and clash take place at the breakfast table. It is morning, the day after Miss Sullivan has arrived from Boston, and the family and new teacher are eating breakfast. We see that young Helen, now age 12, unable to communicate, has grown wild and tyrannical.

Captain Keller, Helen’s father, and his teenage son, James, who are talking and Kate, Helen’s mother, who is reading, are oblivious to Helen, who walks around the table, poking with her hand, grabbing scrambled eggs out of plates as she finds them. But when she reaches for Miss Sullivan's eggs, she finds opposition and the two struggle over the plate. I asked the class, “How does the playwright present for and against, closeness and clash in this scene?” Helen is grabbing at Annie Sullivan’s plate, and Miss Sullivan grips her wrists—

Keller: Let her this time, Miss Sullivan, it's the only way we get any adult conversation. If my son’s half merits that description. (He rises.) I'll get you another plate.
Annie: (gripping Helen) I have a plate, thank you.
Kate: (calling) Viney! I'm afraid what Captain Keller says is only too true, she'll persist in this until she gets her own way.
Keller: Viney, bring Miss Sullivan another plate--
Annie: (stonily) I have a plate, nothing's wrong with the plate, I intend to keep it.
James: Ha! See why they took Vicksburg?
Keller: (uncertainly) Miss Sullivan. One plate or another is hardly a matter to struggle with a deprived child about.

Kate: You don’t know the child well enough yet, she’ll keep—
Annie: I know an ordinary tantrum well enough when I see one, and a badly spoiled child—
James: Hear, hear.

Arnold Cintron said, “This is a fight!” “Right,” I said. “And where are for and against in the lines we just heard? Captain Keller is seemingly for Helen in allowing her to have Annie’s plate.” “Yes,” Maggie Martin said, “Captain Keller thinks Helen should just do whatever she wants, and Annie Sullivan thinks she should get some discipline."

"Do you think that plate stands for the world?” I asked. “Are they arguing about how Helen should be encouraged to treat the world—to do whatever she likes with it or try to be fair to it? Is the closeness and clash about whether the world, which it could seem has been so harsh to Helen, still deserves her respect?" "That's right!" said Tamara Daniels excitedly.

I asked the class, "Why does Miss Sullivan think Helen should eat out of her own plate sitting at the table like everyone else? Just to control her, or is it something deeper?” “Yes, she wants her to have some respect!" said Alfonso.

"Why?" I asked. "Does she want Helen Keller to do something different from grabbing with that hand? Does she want her to use herself to know things? With all the fighting, is she very much for Helen? In the play she says to Captain Keller, ‘I treat her like a seeing child because I ask her to see, I expect her to see….’ Who is kinder to Helen, Annie Sullivan or her parents?" I asked. Dennis Wilkins said, "Her mother--she loves her." "No!" Tamara Daniels said, "Annie Sullivan is. She was blind herself so she knows how she feels. She doesn't want her to be spoiled—she wants her to learn. That's kinder!” I asked, “Are we interested in Helen Keller because we feel, even while she is different from us, we are like her? Do you think she lashes out because she is so angry and pained that she can’t make sense of the world or herself? Have we ever felt anything like that?” “Yes,” they said, and the whole class was taking part, including Julissa, who had been so mute.

Part Three - coming soon


More Information About Aesthetic Realism:

For classes and events, go to the website of the Aesthetic Realism Foundation. You can also learn about the current Terrain Gallery exhibition.

The writing of Rosemary Plumstead on science education, Donita Ellison on art and Leila Rosen on English are essential. Each of these educators is an authority on the crisis in education and what can have young people really learn in America today.

The Aesthetic Realism Online Library contains essays, lectures, and critical works by Eli Siegel, the founder of Aesthetic Realism. There you can see articles in newspapers and journals about Aesthetic Realism. There is also information about the Eli Siegel Collection, Eli Siegel's 25,000 volume library.

In 1955 Is Beauty the Making One of Opposites? was published. I have carried this broadside in museums in New York and London and these 15 questions, beautiful in themselves, have opened my eyes to what you find there.

Find out more about Eli Siegel. Read my statement in Countering the Lies. This website was created to tell the truth about Aesthetic Realism. Here you can see the statements of many many people, giving their careful opinions- including the mayor of Baltimore, and a member of Congress.

The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known ,edited by Ellen Reiss, is a bi-weekly journal which serializes lectures by Eli Siegel. The editor's commentary relates what is in the lectures to our time.

Ellen Reiss teaches the Aesthetic Realism Explanation of Poetry Class and professional classes for consultants and associates. Barbara McClung and Lauren Phillips tell about one of these on a subject of great importance, ADHD. Read more here.

In Racism Can End Ms. Reiss describes the state of mind at the root of all racism and what must be seen for that to change permanently.

The great English poet, John Keats was maligned by the press in his day. Ellen Reiss uses this to give perspective to current matters.

Renowned columnist Alice Bernstein writes on civil rights and culture. She is the editor of Aesthetic Realism and the Answer to Racism.

Aesthetic Realism: A New Perspective for Anthropology & Sociology is the website of Arnold Perey. He is the author of Gwe, a novel against racism, and the children's book, Were They Equal? published by Waverly Press.

Aesthetic Realism Resources has articles on love, the arts, economic justice, the questions of men, women, parents, and many other topics of interest.

The photographs of Len Bernstein are powerful, beautiful, often very surprising. Len Bernstein: Photographic Education Based on the Aesthetic Realism of Eli Siegel. He tells of how his artistic eye has been educated by Aesthetic Realism.

At Lynette Abel: Aesthetic Realism and Life you can find out about the great education for women that is in Aesthetic Realism and her report of a class on a play about World War I, The Miracle at Verdun, is one of the most stirring anti-war statements I have ever read.

Miriam Mondlin is a writer on economic justice, unions, and she is an authority on the subject of stuttering. Go to Aesthetic Realism and Self-Expression.

The beloved Scottish poet, Robert Burns, is a person whose art and passion Ellen Reiss shows the relevance of for our time.

More links

Steve Weiner's blog has a terrific paper: Simplicity and Complexity: Roy Lichtenstein's “Stepping Out.”

For my website go to Aesthetic Realism & Our Lives by my husband, Christopher Balchin, and me.

How Can Racism End? is Christopher's blog in the US. In the UK, it is Aesthetic Realism Is True.