When I was in high school, I was a mediocre student. The only one who thought I was very bright was my mother. I had come from a junior high school of low achievers and was assigned to classes with mediocre students. These classes were taught by mediocre teachers and so we graduated as very average students.
Somehow I got accepted into a university with many bright students, and my fortunes changed. Hanging around smart kids made me smarter and I had an intellectual awakening. Moreover, for the first time in my life, I had many teachers who took an interest in my academic growth and who themselves were fascinating lecturers. I began to look forward to class, to learning. I began to be curious about the world. Caring teachers and a stimulating environment made all the difference.
One teacher makes all the difference in the life of Helen Keller, the subject of the moving drama, The Miracle Worker, which describes the student-teacher relationship of Helen Keller, blind and deaf, and Anne Sullivan, her teacher.
Helen is born in 1882 and by 1887 is healthy but impossible to discipline. Out of total frustration, her parents decide to hire Annie Sullivan, a recent graduate of the Perkins Institute for the Blind, to serve as both a teacher and companion for Helen. Annie, an exceptionally determined young lady, wants to create a new world for Helen in which her student can lead a productive and meaningful life; she does not want merely to make her minimally functional as a disabled person.
At first the relationship of student and teacher is stormy. However, over time Helen learns the alphabet and more from Annie. Simple actions like learning to fold a napkin or eating with a spoon are watershed moments that bring them closer together.
During the time she is working with Helen, disagreements surface between teacher and parent about what is best for her. The parents out of love indulge her; Annie, however, encourages tough love, not giving in to Helen’s every whim for fear it will make her perpetually dependent on the kindness of others.
Annie’s view finally prevails and Helen learns how to wash and dress herself and many other necessary skills to integrate her into both family and society. The real breakthrough, however, occurs when Helen grasps the connection between words and objects, the things the words represent. It is mesmerizing and inspirational to watch as the young student finally grasps the connection between the word water and the actual fluid it represents.
The special bond between student and teacher is at the core of The Miracle Worker. Jewish tradition celebrates this relationship by describing instances of extreme devotion of a teacher to a student. The Talmud observes that it was not uncommon for a teacher to review material 100 times with the student so that the student could retain and understand what he was learning. Moreover, there is a story in the Talmud of a student who only understood the lesson if the teacher retaught it 400 times. On one occasion, the student heard that the teacher might have to leave the lesson and so the student was distracted and did not grasp the material even after 400 times. The Talmud records that the teacher, Rabbi Preida, then reviewed it another 400 times. Granted that this may be an exaggeration, it still reinforces the notion that a teacher should be so committed to his students that he will undertake the near impossible if that is what it takes to insure that the student learns.
Annie Sullivan in The Miracle Worker is the model of a teacher who never gives up, who believes in the vast potential of her students, and who treasures the intellectual progress of her charges. All teachers can learn from her example.