A teacher who inspires teachers

Neeraja Raghavan

Many a teacher, who has read the autobiography of Helen Keller, would doubtless have drawn inspiration from that beautiful story, for hers is a story that has provoked many a writer, film maker and script-writer to spin a tale from a life that is as awesome as it is stranger than fiction.

Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller
Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller
So it may sound surprising when I say that there is yet another book that offers rich treasures for any parent, educationist, learner or teacher. HELEN AND TEACHER (by JOSEPH P LASH) is a fascinating book that offers many insights into the process of teaching, learning and even living life well. But for the last fifty pages or so (when the book tends to drag), this 800-page book makes for very absorbing reading.

My personal preference has always been for autobiographies (over biographies), for I like to believe that there is no better story teller of one’s life than oneself. Despite my continuing to hold that belief, I strongly recommend this book for the numerous insights that it provides, as well as the references to many other books (now accessible as e-books) that Helen Keller wrote. (None of these finds mention in Helen’s autobiography, as she wrote them much later in life).

Surely we wonder what went on in the mind of that pioneering teacher – Anne Sullivan? How did she hit upon the way of opening the doors of learning to her exceptionally challenged pupil? In her words: “(My) mind is undisciplined, bad, full of slips and jumps…How I long to put it in order. Oh, if only there were someone to help me! I need a teacher quite as much as Helen. I know that the education of this child will be the distinguishing event of my life, if I have the brains and perseverance to accomplish it.” That she was ‘on to something big’ (in contemporary lingo!) was something Anne felt intuitively. At the same time, her need to seek guidance, bounce ideas off (and learn from) another is touching in its ring of familiarity for any one of us who has faced a hard challenge.

In her observation of Helen’s quick mind, the conclusion that Anne Sullivan drew may be heartening to many a parent and teacher today: Helen’s quickness of comprehension confirmed Anne in the view that “the child has dormant within him when he comes into the world, all the experiences of the race. These experiences are like photographic negatives, until language develops them and brings out the memory-images.”

What is worth teaching? What is worth learning? Surely these are questions that trouble any teacher or parent, to this day! Especially for early learning, how critical it is that we steer those tender minds in the right direction! Here is what this pioneering teacher has to say: I believe every child has hidden away somewhere in its being, noble qualities and capacities which may be quickened and developed if we go about it in the right way; but we shall never properly develop the higher natures of our little ones while we continue to fill our minds with the so-called rudiments. Mathematics will never make them loving, nor will the accurate knowledge of the size and shape of the word help them to appreciate its wondrous beauties. Let us lead them, then, during the first years they are entrusted to our care, to find their greatest pleasure in nature, by training them to notice everything familiar or strange in our walks with them through the fields, the woods on the hilltops, or by the seashore. The child who loves and appreciates the wonders of the outdoor world will never have room in his heart for the mean and the low. Such a child will have risen to a higher plane, and in a wise study of God’s law in nature he will ever find its highest joy.

In this regard, I found Anne Sullivan’s observations on the (un)importance of a curriculum to be the most insightful: Thank Heaven, I didn’t have to follow a curriculum when I began teaching Helen. I am convinced she wouldn’t have learned language as easily as she did. It seems to me, it is made difficult as possible in school for a child to learn anything.

Helen learned language almost as unconsciously as a normal child. Here it is made a ‘lesson’. The child sits indoors, and for an hour the teacher endeavours more or less skillfully to engrave words upon his brain. As I look back, it seems as if Helen were always on the jump when I was teaching her. We were generally in the open air doing something. Words were learned as they were needed. She rarely forgot a word that was given her when the action called it forth, and she learned a phrase or even a sentence as readily as a single word when it was needed to describe the action.

Apparently, children learn language more quickly when they are free to move about among objects that interest them. They absorb words and knowledge simultaneously. In the classroom they cease to be actors in the drama, they sit and watch the teacher doing something with her mouth which does not excite their curiousity. The child learns eagerly what he wants to know, and indifferently what you want him to know.

For those who long to teach disciplined children, and for those parents who bemoan the lack of discipline in their offspring, here is a thought-provoking extract revealing Anne Sullivan’s feelings on why teaching an undisciplined child was interesting:

I have always thought I was fortunate in having a wild, willful and destructive child for a pupil because she was more interesting than a mild, orderly child would have been. Energy is one of nature’s choicest gifts to the child.

In speaking of her teacher, Helen Keller seems to return the compliment: My teacher was irregularly instructed. There were gaps and deficiencies in her education that she had the rare wisdom herself to see. She brought to her work a freshness, a clear open-mindedness that contributed much toward her success. …She aroused curiosity, aspiration and joyous efforts.

Thus, freshness and a lack of structure appear to have enriched both the teacher as well as the taught, here!

The little peeks that this book allows us, into the woman within Helen, are missing in her autobiography. Which woman does not look attentively at her reflection in the mirror? How did the woman in Helen feel, deprived of so basic an action? Leblanc, a famous beauty, takes note that Helen cannot see herself in the mirror that is in her room: “The mirror tells me: it has not instructed her; it has never told her her charms and defects; it has never revealed her image to her. That image lives and dies in the mirror, whereas with us it is the revealer, teaching us, correcting us and becoming the eternal companion of a grace which it unceasingly abandons and directs by turn…. We shall never ourselves know how far that inseparable sister influences our gravest actions and deeds.”

I did not know until I read this book that Helen and Anne Sullivan made their living through lecture tours all over the country, and even the world. For a life that was already fraught with so much difficulty, the manner in which their monetary obstacles were overcome make very inspiring reading. Touchingly, Helen’s response to a question about her physical handicap makes one reflect on one’s own lack of appreciation of so much that one takes for granted: It was in Cleveland that her answer to one question brought down the house:
“Which is the greatest affliction, deafness, dumbness, blindness?”
she was asked.
“None,” she replied.
“What then is the greatest human affliction?” the questioner persisted.
“Bone headedness,” she replied.

And again, in a similar vein, at a big meeting in Orchestra Hall, Detroit:
“Do you think that blindness is the greatest of afflictions?” he (Campbell) asked Helen, who read the question off his lips.
“No, it is worse to have eyes and yet not see,” Helen responded.

I would say it is worse, when we, as teachers of children who can see, speak and hear, feel inadequately equipped to teach them! We have much to learn from Anne Sullivan: and here is a book that will teach us!

The author is an educational consultant based in Bangalore. She can be reached at [email protected].

There is a weblink to the e-book at: http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=6821898 but this does not allow readers from India to download it. However, it is listed on amazon.com and can be purchased as a used book, hardback or paperback.

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