Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Teaching the Miracle Worker - Part Three

There was a lively discussion about a later scene in Act II between Annie and James, Helen’s step-brother. Annie has been teaching Helen in the summer house very intensively, and Helen has been making some progress. But James is cynical and mocking—and from the beginning has shown he is against this whole attempt to have Helen learn anything. Arnold Cintron—who earlier complained bitterly about any reading assignment—now was tremendously affected by how James often responds coolly. We saw that James is actively against—he is determined to find the world not so good. When Annie says to him, “That little imp is dying to know.” James says, “Know what?”

Annie: Anything. Any and every crumb in God’s creation.
James: Maybe she’ll teach you.
Annie: Of course.
James: That she isn’t, that there’s such a thing as dullness of heart. Acceptance. And letting go. Sooner or later we all give up, don’t we?
Annie: Maybe you all do. It’s my idea of original sin.
James: What is?
Annie: (witheringly) Giving up.
James: (nettled) You won’t open her. Why can’t you let her be? Have some—pity on her, for being what she is—
Annie: If I ever once thought like that, I’d be dead!


The class was excited to see: it matters to Annie Sullivan that Helen Keller learns; she’s for it without reservation and against anything in Helen’s way. The Aesthetic Realism Teaching Method makes it possible for every teacher to see—and I say this with the gratitude of my entire life—there is something to be completely for in every student, and something to be entirely against--not in order to be superior, but to bring out their strength and desire to like the world, which is the same as their desire to learn. Do we believe that our students, with all the things they face, want to like the world? We are crippled in the classroom if we do not.

Annie Sullivan believes that with all Helen's willfulness, she wants to be opposed and desperately wants her desire to learn brought out. "Are we all like that?" I asked, "Do we want someone who'll be for and against us in a way that will make us stronger?"

My students were greatly moved by the final scene which takes place after a tremendous fight. Helen has knocked over a pitcher in anger and Annie Sullivan takes her to the pump to refill it. As Helen pumps, “Annie takes over the handle to keep water coming, and does automatically what she has done many times before, spells into Helen’s free palm:

Annie: Water. W, a, t, e, r. Water. It has a—name—"

The playwright tells us:

And now the miracle happens. Helen drops the pitcher on the slab under the spout. It shatters. She stands transfixed. Annie freezes on the pump handle. There is a change in the sundown light, and with it a change in Helen’s face, some light coming into it we have never seen there, some struggle in the depths behind it; and her lips tremble, trying to remember something the muscles around them once knew, till at last it finds its way out, painfully, a baby sound buried under the debris of years of dumbness.

Helen: Wah. Wah.

Helen plunges her hand into the dwindling water, spells into her own palm. Then she gropes frantically, Annie reaches for her hand, and Helen spells into Annie’s hand.

Annie: (whispering) Yes.


Although Helen Keller was never able to see or hear, she learned five languages, English, Latin, Greek, German, and French. She graduated from Radcliffe College and became an author, lecturing all over the world not only on behalf of the blind, but for justice to all people. She wanted to know the world's diversity through touch and smell and thought with a passionate love. In The Story of My Life, her first book, written when she was 22, she wrote:

When I read the finest passages of the Iliad, I am conscious of a soul-sense that lifts me above the narrow, cramping circumstances of my life....[K]nowledge is happiness, because to have knowledge--broad deep knowledge--is to know true ends from false, and lofty things from low. To know the thoughts and deeds that have marked man's progress is to feel the great heartthrobs of humanity throughout the centuries….(109, 103)

Because she wanted so much to be affected and to learn, Helen Keller is loved and admired all over the world.

My students respected Annie Sullivan very much and said they want to be like her. In essays, they wrote about her persevering and having a beautiful determination to have Helen learn, although people, including Helen herself and those close to her, were against this.

They saw they have to be against contempt, including in themselves, in order to be for the world. Seeing the oneness of for and against in drama and in the world, my students were better able to make a relation between for and against in themselves and in their knowing each other. Instead of fighting—as days passed they listened more thoughtfully to each other, and they also stood up for their own opinions. They talked frankly about criticisms they have of how boys and girls see each other and they were good-naturedly criticizing themselves. It was a pleasure to be with them, and now that the semester has passed, I miss them!

Nearly every student in my classes passed every quiz and test in this unit. Most had an average of at least 80. When I commented on how well everyone did on one test in particular, Johnny Diaz, who in the past found it hard to express himself in writing said, "We like it." Louis Ramos, a young man whose family life had been turbulent, said with shame early in the semester that he was slow and couldn't learn like his classmates. One day during a discussion he stood up at his desk and said, "Last year, I just didn't get it. I didn't know what was going on and I just didn't get it. But now I understand! I understand and it's because of the way you teach!"

I want teachers everywhere to know what I am so grateful to have learned. When they do, education will have a renaissance!
* * * * *
Works Cited:
Aesthetic Realism Class, Aesthetic Realism as Beauty: Drama, 1951.
Gibson, William. The Miracle Worker. New York: Bantam Books, 1968.
Keller, Helen. The Story of My Life, Cambridge: The Riverside Press, 1904.
Reiss, Ellen. “The Answer for Education; the Solution to Prejudice,” The Right of Aesthetic Realism to Be Known. New York.
Siegel, Eli. Four Statements of Aesthetic Realism. New York: Aesthetic Realism Foundation, 1967.



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 Ellen 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.