As everybody knows, it’s healthy for children to have role models: someone to admire and to whom they can look up. This role model is someone the child spends a lot of time learning about and trying to emulate. As a society, we talk about role models a lot: Ke$ha is a bad one, parents strive to be good ones, Lance Armstrong was a good one but now everyone wants to punch him in the face (although, let’s be honest, most of us wanted to do that before the whole doping scandal). Most young children’s role models are people within their immediate vicinity: parents, extended family members, teachers, coaches, etc. I never even bothered getting into those “my dad is better than your dad” arguments at school because it wasn’t worth it. My dad is better than everyone else’s, period. If the role models aren’t someone the child knows, they’re people kids see in movies or books or magazines. When I was in elementary school, my classmates were preoccupied with New Kids on the Block and Full House (and then there was always that one kid who would never stop talking about Ulysses Grant or Napoleon or something). Me? I was obsessed with Helen Keller.
I’m probably the poster child for reasons it may not be a good idea to over-expose young children to culture. For example, I saw my first opera when I was ten. It was Falstaff: The opera based on Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor. It follows the drunken, lecherous escapades of an old man. My aunt took me to see the show and then bought the libretto for me upon my request. The following week, one of the neighborhood moms called my mom and asked her not to buy me any more opera librettos because she had overheard us reciting the lines from Falstaff and didn’t think it was appropriate.
Now, Helen Keller did a lot of really cool things. She graduated from Radcliffe, becoming the first person who was both blind and deaf to earn a college degree. She became a world-famous speaker and author. She was a political activist and birth control supporter and was friends with lots of famous people like Charlie Chaplin and Mark Twain. However, at the time of my obsession, the extent of my Helen Keller knowledge came from the play (and subsequent movies) “The Miracle Worker”. For those of you who are unfamiliar, the play follows Helen Keller, her teacher and companion Annie Sullivan, and the Keller family as they work to help Helen Keller communicate with the world around her. The pinnacle scene of the play involves Helen and Annie standing next to a water pump. Helen’s hands are under the pump as water is flowing out and she’s frantically signing the word for “water”. It’s an exhilarating moment- the audience has witnessed the tantrums and anguish that have accompanied Helen’s inability to communicate. Annie Sullivan has tirelessly worked using unorthodox methods to create the connection in Helen’s mind between the symbolic signs and the objects they represent. The play contains several positive themes that any parent would want for their children: perseverance, innovation, struggling in the face of adversity. Those themes were not immediately apparent to Mom and Dad, though, as I spent hours by the sink, shaping letters with my fingers beneath my imaginary water pump. Or when I was walking around the house with my eyes closed, running into things and emulating Helen Keller’s character by throwing massive pretend tantrums in the dining room.
My fascination with Helen Keller started when I saw a low-budget community theater rendition of The Miracle Worker. After that, I was obsessed with all things Helen Keller. I read every children’s biography of her that I could find. I used dull pencils to punch holes in my paper and pretend it was braille. I had passionate opinions about the merits of each movie version; Anne Bancroft/Patty Duke was the best, but I loved Melissa Gilbert as Helen Keller mostly because I recognized her from Little House on the Prairie. Also, sometimes when I got bored playing Helen Keller, I would switch over and pretend to be Mary Ingalls, because she was also blind and I was good at making prairie skirts out of bed sheets.
My best friend Anna and I learned the American Sign Language alphabet and used it to attempt to communicate in public. We also made up our own secret language so that we could comfortably converse around our peers. Obviously, Anna and I glided through middle school without ever being teased: two girls who spoke a secret language and talked relentlessly about Helen Keller. We were untouchable by bullies mainly due to the inherent cool factor possessed by any twelve year old who still goes home and plays make believe.
In fact, the biggest fight Anna and I ever had was because of Helen Keller. We were playing "blind kids" for like, the third day in a row. This mostly consisted of closing our eyes and groping around the unfinished basement. I could tell Anna was losing interest, but she was my last friend who stilled played make believe and I was going to cling to that with the tenacity of the truly self-deluded. One day, Anna “magically” got her sight back.
“You can’t do that!” I said, outraged. She looked at me the way my classmates had when I’d attempted to cast a play I’d written about two girls who happened to be blind who were running away from home. Pity mixed with embarrassment.
“Why not? It’s make believe. I can do whatever I want. Besides, this is really boring.”
It didn’t matter that she was right, it actually was really boring- I was still pissed. I took a developmental psychology class in college in which we learned that children often use play as a way to work out whatever is going on in their lives. In this way, they can grapple with the complex issues they’re confronting, despite the fact that they may not have fully developed capabilities for abstract thought. Granted, the developmental psychologists who articulated this theory were most likely talking about kindergarten through around third grade- and not about kids who may hit puberty at any moment. Still, that theory makes sense here. As an awkward girl with a unibrow and a nervous twitch who was obsessed with Helen Keller, dolphins, and Yeah-Yeah from The Sandlot, I probably felt as unable to communicate with my peers as a young Helen Keller. Anna, by “magically” getting her sight back, was signifying that she was ready to emerge from our world of make believe and give the real world a try. It was the developmentally healthy thing to do.
Needless to say, we didn’t speak for days.