When I was in high school, our drama group put on the play The Miracle Worker. As was the case for most productions, I was a backstage participant. My main job for this particular show was to keep the script up-to-date with blocking, sound and light cues, and any other notes which would make the play run like clockwork. (I also sometimes ran out to get snacks and beverages for the director. If I remember correctly, she particularly liked orange juice on the rocks that semester. Showbusiness is so glamorous!)
My older sister Becky, on the other hand, was cast as one of the two major acting roles—Annie Sullivan. If you’re familiar with the play or the movie or just the story of Helen Keller, then you know that Annie Sullivan is hired by the family of a little girl who had been blind and deaf since contracting a fever before she was two-years old. Annie is given the nearly impossible job of being Helen’s teacher. Through lots of persistence as well as a host of inventive teaching methods, clever little Helen is able to connect the significance of the letters which Annie painstakingly signs into her hand with the name of the actual object.
The pivotal moment in the play is when Annie and Helen are by the water pump. As water pours over Helen’s hand, she gestures for her teacher to sign the word. Annie had done this many times before, but this time something clicks. “It has a name,” Annie says. “W-A-T-E-R.” You see something new in Helen’s expression. She signs the letters in response. Then she stumbles around searching for more words to discover and name. It’s such a powerful scene.
My daughter Ella and I visited the place where all of those events occurred. It’s a beautifully preserved home in Tuscumbia, Alabama. We saw the dining room where Annie made her first stand against Helen’s spoiled mealtime behavior, the little house where teacher and student lived alone for a few weeks to focus on learning this new way to communicate, and the actual water pump where that critical realization happened.
We also got to see what happened after Helen had that water pump moment. We saw newspaper articles and citations from world leaders. There were photos of her with U.S. presidents and actors. There were letters behind glass display cases which she had written to cousins and other family members with her own little hand when she was 8-years old. Her handwriting was remarkably distinct and precise. Giant books of raised Braille letters were scattered around the room, along with heavy typewriter-like machines used to add those raised bumps to the pages. Helen Keller went on to write 14 books and hundreds of speeches and essays. She lived an extraordinary 87 years, inspiring people and advocating for others.
As we walked through the house and strolled around the grounds, I was struck by the power of words. Helen’s ability to communicate changed everything for her. She was loved and cared for by her parents before she knew what W-A-T-E-R was, but she was trapped. When Annie Sullivan came along and refused to see a little girl with no hope, Helen was given a key and her life was forever transformed. If it weren’t for that caring teacher and Helen’s own desire to learn, none of us would even know her name, let alone pay $7 to see the bed where she slept. The whole experience reminds us that anything is possible. You can understand why Helen is quoted as saying, “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”