Helen Keller is my hero. She has been for a long time. Some of the reasons are obvious–who she became despite and because of her disabilities, her impact. But even more so, she is my hero because of what she has taught me (even though she died a year after I was born) about learning and love and being a human being. Her influence has changed the way I see the world.
I read her autobiography The Story of My Life every few years. I picked it up yesterday because I needed her. It’s been a rough few months for a variety of reasons. Some things that would typically not bother me have been stuck in my brain like a song you hate but can’t stop humming (some friends and I call it a FIMH, fucker in my head). Demons. Little demons, but demons nonetheless.
Chapter IV is my favorite. Famously, it is the chapter at the water pump, where Helen associates what Anne Sullivan is spelling into her hand as water. I used that chapter with my students most years when we would talk about what it really means to learn, what it means to have true understanding flash into our consciousness. This part of the story is the ultimate “AHA!” moment.
But the reason it is my favorite chapter isn’t because of that scene, but rather what happens before and after it. Before Anne takes Helen to the water pump, she gives Helen a doll from the children at the blind school. In frustration, Helen throws the doll to the floor and it shatters. Of that, she writes,
I was keenly delighted when I felt the fragments of the broken doll at my feet. Neither sorrow nor regret followed my passionate outburst. I had not loved the doll. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness.
When Helen and Anne return to the house from her consciousness-altering experience at the water pump, this is what happens,
On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.
When I used this in the classroom, I always read it aloud to my students. Their eyes would get big as I cried. And then we would discuss why, no matter how many times I have read it, these lines give me goose bumps and tears. High school juniors have tremendous capacity to shed their egos when they are given an opportunity to do so, and this lesson always had that result. When 17-year-olds discussed why learning and understanding change our humanity, they reinforced for me that our future is in good hands.
The Orland shooting, the resulting ugliness about Muslims and guns (again) on social media, the ridiculousness of the current presidential campaigns, add those to the little demons of everyday life, and I guess it’s not that surprising that I needed a reminder from my friend, Helen. I needed her to remind me that I am a conscious, intelligent, sentient life form. We all are, but I really can only control me.
And I think that maybe exorcism is less the casting out of demons, but rather filling ourselves with so much love, understanding, and compassion, that there really isn’t room for anything else.
Later on in her life, Helen Keller wrote this,
When shall we learn that we are related one to the other; that we are members of one body; that injury to one is injury to all? Until the spirit of love for our fellow-workers, regardless of race, color, creed or sex, shall fill the world, until the great mass of the people shall be filled with a sense of responsibility for each other’s welfare, social justice cannot be attained, and there can never be lasting peace upon earth.
I think she was on to something.