Annie and Helen Keller

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet.  Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.”

– Helen Keller

The Miracle Worker is a play written by William Gibson; it is the story of Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan.

The play opens with a doctor assuring Captain Keller and his wife, Kate that their infant daughter, Helen, will recover from a serious fever. Soon after the doctor leaves, however, Kate realizes that Helen is deaf and blind. In the next scene, Helen is about six years old. She is a wild, undisciplined child. Though they try, her parents are unable to help or control her. In desperation, they hire a young woman, Annie Sullivan.

From the moment Annie arrives, it is clear that she and Helen will be gripped in a great struggle. But Helen is not the only problem for Annie. Annie must also convince the Kellers, especially the Captain, that she, Annie, needs complete control of Helen if she is to reach the child. Annie is certain that language is the key to gaining access to Helen’s mind, and she constantly spells the names of things on Helen’s palm.

Although Helen can spell them back on Annie’s palm, the understanding that the words represent things eludes her. After spending two weeks together in the garden house, Helen finally obeys Annie, but when the time is up and they return to the family, Helen quickly reverts to her former behavior. The Kellers are indulgent, ready to fall back into their old pattern of behavior, but Annie doesn’t let them. When Helen spills a water pitcher on Annie, Annie takes her out to refill it. She spells “water” into Helen’s hand, and suddenly the miracle happens. Helen understands.

The play was produced in 1959. Audiences and critics alike were most drawn to the play’s honest and emotionally vivid portrayal of the relationship between Annie and Helen. The actors’ intense energy and commitment to truth in the scenes of physical struggle between Annie and Helen were held as the most memorable moments of the play when it first opened on Broadway. Audiences found the story of Annie’s struggle to teach Helen language and her eventual success life-affirming and uplifting. Surrounding the major themes of change, transformation, language, and meaning is basic integrity and emotional honesty.

This story has always inspired me. Annie speaks to my role as a parent; that my job is to bring out the best in my children whether they like me in the process or not. As much as I want to protect them, I am not helping if I lower the expectations because something is difficult. As with most teaching, they will thank me later. Helen reminds me how important courage is – to take the risk to be taught and step outside of my comfort zone. Others can see my greatness in ways I cannot and I need their help to be my best self.

Ask yourself:  

  1. Where do I need an Annie Sullivan in my life?
  2. Where do I need to be an Annie Sullivan for someone?