Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan; Who's next for me?

These two. They just blow me away. With their two brains working together they were unstoppable. 
Thank you, Annie and Helen. You showed 'em.

Helen and Annie


When I was 16, I auditioned to be Helen Keller in our high school's production of  The Miracle Worker, a beautiful three-act play by William Gibson based on Keller's autobiography: The Story of My Life.

It literally changed the path of my entire life, thanks to a brilliant teacher and director, LouAnne Durham, who could both 1) Manage to organize the circus of hormones called Teenagers in Drama, and 2) Create something beautiful out of our chaos using a great script, her own skill, extreme patience and sheer tenacity.

 She made us do more than just recite lines and learn blocking. She talked to us about the relationships between characters. In preparation even before practice she challenged me to experience life in different ways to get a hint of what Helen may have felt. She had me wear vision occluding goggles to navigate the high school halls during practice, watch T.V. with the sound off, load the dishwasher at home with my eyes closed. She also had an O.T. visit during practice one night to teach us finger spelling and talk to us about working with children with disabilities.
"This is it." I thought that night sitting in the front row on the creaky, faded, patchy velvet seats of the Little Theater listening to the occupational therapist talk. "That's what I want to spend my life doing."

And so I did.
It's funny how life comes in circles. I've been several characters in that play now. As an awkward teen I played Helen, stumbling blindly and impulsively to adulthood. Then fresh and green out of grad school I worked in a school with a little girl who was visually impaired. She hit me during lunch, poured her milk on my new sweater and it went right up my sleeve as we struggled to sit at the table together and eat with a spoon.
"Wow!" I thought. "This is just like Helen and Annie! I've made it! I've come full circle!"

Yeah, it's funny how life comes in circles and bites you in the butt sometimes coming around that back curve. Now much of the time I'm playing the role of Kate Keller, Helen's mom.
Kate's character in the play is anxiously protective of  her child but desperately trusts in Annie's --and Helen's-- abilities. She finally learns to relinquish control of Helen's life and let someone else be "that person"  who is the bridge to the world for Helen. As she internally struggles, she gently and firmly leads the rest of her family down this path, which they are totally guarded against for fear of being hurt once again.
Ultimately, no one believes in Helen more than Kate, who didn't take no for an answer when "experts" told her not to bother. She appears wispy and emotional, fluid and meek, but is in reality a quiet rock as Annie struggles, Helen rages, James skulks and "The Captain" blusters around her. (Aunt Ev offers advice, a lot.) She enables the rest of the story to move forward, even though it breaks her heart.
In theory she knows what Helen can be, but in practice it is scary for her to let her child struggle to get there.
As I learn to let go and trust those who can help Dan to be everything he can be, I have to relinquish control of some things. Okay, Lots of Things.  So now I aspire to be Kate. She was a brave lady and a quiet leader.

 I can't say that I've ever really been or ever will presume to be an Annie Sullivan. I've helped a lot of kids in my career so far, but that relationship, those two together is a mighty force of nature. Watching the two of them, so brilliantly play off of each other, so aware of their mutual mission and presentation, it is just humbling.
It's true also that their magical pairing was a perfect aligning of the stars involving many factors such as the timing in Helen's development, family financial support, emergence of societal change for women, and two people with the brains and drive who were compatible. Both of them deserve the credit of Helen's success, as does everyone in Helen's complex family.

Which character will I play in the next round?
Maybe the next circle around I'll be Aunt Ev, shaking my finger and eating pickles, offering lots of advice. She's not so bad herself.


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