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The Education and Development of Children – Are Your Hands Stained?

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The story of Helen Keller is one we may all know. I read Helen Keller’s story, when I was in an elementary school in a rural part of Liberia. If you have not read Helen Keller’s story, I would suggest that before you take your child from Africa and other culturally knitted societies to be educated and raised in ‘developed’ countries, or “fast paced” societies, it might be helpful to read the story of Helen Keller, and or watch the film  “The Miracle Worker,” of Helen Keller’s story. That’s simply because there are some salient points about Helen’s story that we must all reflect on as we make decisions about educating and raising our children. In the film version, viewers will recognize Helen Keller’s s teacher, Anne Sullivan confidence that her student could learn, and Sullivans’ dedication and disposition as a teacher.

In her (Helen’s) biography, we learned that Helen was not only deaf and blind from an illness, but she was also spoilt and undisciplined (like most of us parent do sometimes) by her parents. Helen Keller also displayed severe temper tantrums, which may have been mostly because of her lack of language, or inability to effectively communicate. Probably out of sympathy and lack of skills, Helen Keller’s parents and members of her family accommodated, allowed and fed into Helen’s lack of discipline.

I first read Helen Keller’s story during my elementary school’s days. Yet still, every time my thoughts zoom to Helen Keller, I continue to be amazed at how she moved from being just a deaf and blind feral child to becoming a famous author, a successful activist, and lecturer. According to worldwide reports, Helen was the first deaf and blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Would Helen have become an author, a political activist, a lecturer without the positive outlook and higher expectation and belief of her teacher, Anne Sullivan? In Sullivan’s role as Helen’s teacher, she demonstrated key qualities highlighted by two great educationalists on how good teachers positively influence the lives of their students. One of the great educationalists, Bertrand Russell, said, “No man can be a good teacher unless he has feelings of warm affection toward his pupils and a genuine desire to impart to them what he believes to be of value,” and the other, Anne Lieberman said, “Great teachers empathize with kids, respect them, and believe that each one has something special that can be built upon.” In here, we didn’t read that some children cannot learn and therefore those students should be isolated, or “brand named.”No!

Before I delve further into what I appreciate and embrace from the story of Helen Keller, it’s important to note Sullivan’s disposition. Before discussing Anne’s disposition, permit me to ask, “Have you watched “The Miracle Worker?” It is the film version of Helen Keller’s story. The Miracle Worker visually illustrates Helen Keller’s life. The story depicts Anne Sullivan’s extraordinary patience and perseverance to move Helen from her world of isolation imposed by a near complete lack of language, to a world of inclusion where she (Helen) learned to communicate, blossomed, and became famous. But how did that happened? What challenges did Helen’s teacher Anne Sullivan faced during the period she worked as Helen’s teacher?

Over the weekend, I pulled out Helen Keller’s story as a film, “The Miracle Worker,” and watched it again. Though this was my second time ever, I was again touched by Sullivan’s disposition – her diligence, patience, and perseverance -in teaching Helen. As I watched the film, I was touched by the empathy Anne demonstrated through both her verbal and non- verbal behaviors, combined with her professional attitudes, values, and beliefs. As I watched the story of Helen Keller unfold, and studied Anne Sullivan’s role, I nodded again and again. The film reinforced my belief that in addition to subject matter knowledge, and pedagogical skills, a teacher’s disposition is important for student success. A teacher’s disposition brings out the best in student, and also has long-term effects on students, even after the student leaves the teacher’s classroom.

“The Miracle Worker” provided me a visual sense and impression, at an even deeper level of Sullivan’s phenomenal dedication as a teacher. In the movie, initially Helen’s father and her brother thought Helen could not learn. Like most mothers, Helen mother was torn between her love for her child, and her role in helping Helen become successful. Nevertheless, even in the face of failures and frustrations, Helen’s mother kept on hoping. Then again, in spite Helen’s family doubt about Helen’s ability to learn, Anne Sullivan exhibited positive-ness and she remained positive; she believed Helen Keller could learn.

The challenges of facing the family’s doubt, and frustrations, as well as Anne’s plan and disposition are clearly illustrated at the time of her (Anne’s) arrival at Helen’s home. At the time of Anne Sullivan’s arrival, Helen’s future was at a cross road, and contingent upon her new teacher’s role, and performance. Anne was not fully aware of the challenges she would face in being Helen’s teacher, but as the story unfolds, we see a manifestation of some compelling concepts: Haim G. Ginott, (a 1922–1973 school teacher, a child psychologist and psychotherapist and a parent educator) is quoted as saying, A teacher possesses tremendous power to make a child’s (Helen’s) life miserable or joyous.” Haim Ginott continued, “I can be a tool of torture or an instrument of inspiration, I can humiliate or humor, hurt or heal.” In the case of Helen, Sullivan possessed the power and tools and she chose to utilize those tools and the power to see a potential beyond the superficial frustration and incongruous behavior displayed by Helen.

As outlined in the story, and exemplified in the movie, Sullivan’s arrival into Helen’s life was not only timely, but also critical, because Helen was now seen as a feral child, and there were discussions to confine her; a practice that is foreign in African countries, but regularly seen in ‘developed’ countries. Like today, most feral child/children are in ‘the developed” countries are either marginalized, isolated or confined, where they experience even lesser human contact, and or have less privileges to enjoy or experience [without monitoring] everyday interaction, which are essential activities to develop and build social behavior skills and language skills. In addition to feeding into the lack of social behavior and language skills, it is well know that, in most confinement institutions today, there are increasing possibilities that residents are given Anti-psychotics drugs to curtail behaviors that are not considered “normal,” or behaviors the “experts” believed can only be cured or curtailed by anti-psychotic medications or drugs. In addition, to the possibility of anti-psychotic drugs being parts of ‘treatment plans’ for most kids with “emotional problems and other disabilities,” recent reports published in U.S based newspaper, The Washington Examiner, and other media institutions reported investigation into The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center facility. The facility, on its website states it “has provided very effective education and treatment to both emotionally disturbed students with conduct, behavior, emotional, and/or psychiatric problems and developmentally delayed students with autistic-like behaviors.” The investigation, according to news reports, (Court indicts founder of Mass. special-education school) is based on allegation of the administration of electric shocks to kids, and the destruction of tapes that “showed school officials administering electric shocks to two teenagers.” The Washington Examiner article added, “The students, including a 16-year-old from Alexandria, were dragged out of bed in the middle of the night and hooked up to electroshock machines. The student from Alexandria was given two dozen shocks to the skin, and the other was given 77 shocks while he was restrained on a flat surface for three hours. Students from Washington, DC and the metro area are among clients of The Judge Rotenberg Educational Center.

As we reflect on Helen’s behaviors, it is important to ask ourselves, “Let’s assume Helen was in our schools today, would she have been given Anti-psychotics drugs to curb her inappropriate behaviors, or sent to a Judge Rotenberg Educational Center that has been in operation for quart decade, and received student at a staggering cost of $227,000.00 (two hundred twenty seven thousand dollars) per child annually? If Helen Keller had lived in our day and age, and attended our schools and taught by our teachers, would she have become the author, the political activist and lecturer she became?” How would teachers, tutors, behaviorists, and case managers responded to Helen’s almost lack of language, and her temper tantrums –the behaviors we read about and saw in the Miracle Worker Film?

Given all that we have read about Helen Keller- a deaf and blind child; a child who was spoilt, ‘rebellious” and prone to constant temper tantrums, how did Sullivan transform her [Helen] into being a successful activist? What are some of the fundamental challenges Sullivan faced in reaching and breaking Helen’s world of darkness, or gaining the trust and confident of Helen? If you are a teacher, think about a “Helen” in your class, or a “Helen” in your school environment, and consider your thoughts, views and relationship with that “Helen”, or the “Helens” that comes your way, and how they (your attitude, disposition, relationship) influence that child’s or children’s development and growth, and his/her future. Sullivan’s role as Helen Keller’s teacher speaks a lot about the importance of being taught by someone who believes in you.

From my perspective, the film from beginning to end is educational and riveting both for parents and advocates who truly believe in the successful development and growth of children – regardless of their economic status, their enunciation and background. For teachers in early childhood education, it is important to see and learn from Sullivan- her ability to look beyond Helen’s behavior and see a potential, and not a child who is unreachable and unachievable. Watch Sullivan as she arrived and attempted to teach Helen to use her sense of touch/feel, and to learn to communicate using sign language. It may sound easy, but it was a challenge for both the teacher and student. Helen was uncooperative. Helen rebelled because that was what she knew. Sullivan recognized that the behaviors Helen demonstrated were behaviors she lived. Sullivan also understood that the behaviors Helen learned, adapted and demonstrated could be unlearned and replaced with appropriate behaviors. Sullivan did not begin labeling Helen, neither did she shun Helen. No! Rather, Sullivan became persistent and consistently revisited and sometimes revised her approach and strategies to reach Helen. And whenever Helen misbehaved, Sullivan saw the behavior as unacceptable, not Helen as unacceptable.

Another scene from the film that demonstrated Sullivan’s high expectation of Helen is during a breakfast scene. Even though Sullivan had taught Helen to use appropriate table manners, in this breakfast scene, Helen reverted to her old ways. Sullivan was convinced that she must be alone with Helen in order to get her disciplined enough to eat with a spoon and not with her hands.

Another scene that I found emotional and touching occurred at the well. The scene at the water pump left me in tears; I found it mesmerizing! It is at that point that Sullivan’s perseverance and determination is unmistakable. That is, in spite Helen’s continued resistance, Sullivan persisted and did not become frustrated, otherwise the permission of frustrations would have overshadowed the moment of realization, which could only be seen on Helen’s face – implicit! It was the precise instant that Helen finally understood and embraced her teacher’s lesson, and messages. The teacher continued to pump water, while she pulled Helen’s hand under the flowing water as she (the teacher) spelt the word “w a t e r” in Helen’s palm, and then pulled Helen’s hand to the water pump and spelt the word “p u m p.” When that moment of realization arrived, the dark isolation of Helen’s world was transposed to a floodgate of light, and the water jug fell from Helen’s hand and broke! The jug broke into pieces, Helen’s dark wall collapsed! Had Sullivan lost her focus, she would have missed that instant. It was an instant that was not only crucial but a ground breaking transformation: Helen was released from a world of darkness and isolation to a world of inclusion and celebration. Imagine if Sullivan had interrupted Helen’s thought by expressing frustrations over her resistance, or for breaking the water jug. Sullivan did not allow Helen’s resistance to frustrate her efforts and determination. Sullivan did not also allow Helen’s resistance to let her emotions to rise, which would have interfere in the methods she had chosen to teach Helen. Sullivan maintained a positive outlook, and understood the importance of relationship in bringing out the best in her student(s), and that focus and relationship help her [Sullivan] to see the transformation as it took place in her student’s world.

Anne Sullivan broke the chain of darkness and isolation that engulfed Helen Keller’s world, because of her positive disposition, and conviction that her student could learn. Like most teachers, Sullivan’s subject knowledge and pedagogical skills made the learning experience fun and meaningful. However, unlike most teachers, Sullivan was aware that relationships – what is said and not said, and the messages that are given about values and expectations – is an important tool that influence student success. In the process, Sullivan knew as a teacher, she had the opportunity and power to make Helen or mar Helen’s life, but she chose the latter!

At the end of the film, I became even more convinced that Annie Sullivan went to bed every night thinking of ways to help Helen become successful. She planned, strategized and redesigned her lessons and activities to fit the needs of her student. Certainly, Sullivan’s vision aligns with the famous Indian Proverb, “Every time you wake up and ask yourself, “What good things am I going to do today?,” remember that when the sun goes down at sunset, it takes a part of your life with it.” Sullivan undoubtedly saw the good in every child, and she was determined to make a positive difference in the lives of her student- her students before Helen, and in her role as Helen’s teacher.

I wonder if there is any Anne Sullivan out there today, and if there are any “Anne Sullivan’s” in our world today, are they encouraged, supported or allowed to work with the “Helen Kellers” in our schools and communities? If the Sullivans of today are not allowed to used their perseverance, patience, and dedication to help the Helens and other children, who will benefit from such dedications, disposition and miracle, let’s take a step back and ask ourselves, “How many dreams are shattered in the process of isolating or confining, marginalizing and labeling of the Helen Kellers in our society today?” How many institutions are benefiting from the labeling, streamlining, confinements and the use of Anti-psychotics drugs as parts of treatment plan for the Helens who are struggling to be understood, heard and given a chance to break loose from the world of darkness to a world of celebration? Most of all, how many hands are stained in the process of shattering the dreams of children who Helens?

In raising my child, (not only my son, but all children) I am reminded of one of Helen Keller’s statements about the beauty and power of education and a confident teacher. Helen Keller said, “Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without compass or sounding line, and no way of knowing how near the harbor was. “Light! Give me light!” was the wordless cry of my soul, and the light of love shone on me in that very hour.”

As a mother, a teacher and advocate, I see in every child a “gem” waiting to be unveiled, embraced and nurtured. When I see a child, I see a “bowl” waiting to be filled, when I interact with a child, I am guided by the Chinese proverb, “A child’s life is like a piece of paper on which every person leaves a mark,” and I see that interaction as an opportunity to make each child feel loved and unique, and that they too can become great. My desire is to “give light” not only to my son, but to each child that comes my way. I hope that my interaction and my “touch” will continue to make each child feel accepted, loved, to open a flood gate of light that will help child realize their full potential. I love children, and hope for each child that which I hope for my son.

About the author: Musue N. Haddad is a Liberian Journalist/Photo-Journalist. She holds a graduate degree from George Washington University, and has worked both at home and outside of Liberia. She received several national and international awards for her journalistic practices and human rights work, including the Nelson Mandela Award for “Best Student in Photo-Journalism,” Human Rights Award from the United Nations Association of the National Capital Area (UNA-NCA), for “outstanding dedication and service towards the recognition, promotion and protection of the inherent dignity and equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family.” and Human Rights Watch Hellmann-Hammett Award, granted to writers around the world who have been the targets of political persecution. In 1998/1999, she received the Press Union of Liberia “Journalist of the Year” and ‘”Photo-Journalist of the Year” awards.

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