When Annie Sullivan meets Helen Keller for the first time, they don’t get along. Helen behaves wildly and shows no respect for Annie, since no one has been able to teach her how to behave herself. By the end of the play, however, Helen has learned how to treat Annie with respect and, furthermore, to use language as a tool for educating herself about the world at large. Helen had teachers before Annie, but none of them was able to “get through” to her in the way that Annie can. In short, The Miracle Worker isn’t just a play about words and communication—it’s about the twin processes of learning and teaching.
Gibson suggests that part of the reason why Annie succeeds with Helen where other teachers have failed is that Annie’s own experience with blindness makes her able to identify with Helen’s condition in a way that Helen’s previous teachers could not. Annie spent much of her early life without the ability to see, but she regained her sight as an adult thanks to several special operations. Therefore, Annie remembers what it’s like to feel utterly alone in the world, and to feel trapped in her own mind. As a child, she and her beloved brother, Jimmie, were forced to live in a harsh, derelict almshouse (i.e., a shelter for the poor). Later, Jimmie dies, leaving Annie to fend for herself. Annie’s life experiences allow her to understand Helen in a way that nobody, including her parents and teachers, ever has. She sees Helen as a version of herself: a frightened and confused prisoner, “trapped” in her own mind in much the same way that Annie was trapped in the almshouse. Annie understands that she must see the world from Helen’s point of view in order to reach her. When she meets Helen, Annie is able to do this because of her literal experience with blindness as well as her emotional experiences with fear, confusion, and isolation.
Because Annie identifies with Helen and her condition, she develops genuine compassion for Helen to a degree that none of Helen’s previous teachers did, and this is ultimately what makes it possible for Helen to learn from Annie. Annie sees Helen as a person, not as a problem in need of solving, and for this reason she cares enough not to give up. While other teachers quit after a few fruitless days with Helen, Annie sees it as her personal responsibility to help Helen by teaching her how to communicate. In the end, Annie doesn’t succeed in teaching Helen because she has a brilliant new method—rather, she succeeds because she’s incredibly persistent, spending long hours spelling out the same word for Helen, over and over again. After two challenging weeks, Annie’s hard work finally pays off, and Helen grasps the connection between water and the sequence of finger-combinations that represents water.
The best teacher, Gibson ultimately suggests, isn’t necessarily the smartest person in the room or the person with the most authority. Rather, a great teacher has the compassion and empathy to understand her students. She knows how to tailor her lessons to the students’ needs. Annie succeeds where dozens of other professionals have failed because she sees what nobody else does: that Helen is a bright child who’s deeply curious about the world. By the same token, the best student isn’t necessarily the smartest. Rather, good students need to learn to respect their teachers, which is easier to do when their teachers treat them as equals. Helen masters sign language because she comes to trust and cooperate with Annie instead of fighting her, as she did with Annie’s predecessors. Ultimately, the play sees teaching and learning as “twin arts,” with the teacher and the student engaging in a fruitful partnership.
Learning and Teaching ThemeTracker
Learning and Teaching Quotes in The Miracle Worker
ANAGNOS: Deaf blind, mute—who knows? She is like a little safe, locked, that no one can open. Perhaps there is a treasure inside.
ANNIE: I have three big advantages over Dr. Howe that money couldn't buy for you. One is his work behind me, I've read every word he wrote about it and he wasn't exactly what you'd call a man of few words. Another is to be young, why, I've got energy to do anything. The third is, I've been blind.
KELLER: Here’s a houseful of grownups can't cope with the child, how can an inexperienced half-blind Yankee schoolgirl manage her?
ANNIE: All right, Miss O'Sullivan. Let's begin with doll.
JAMES: Spell, she doesn't know the thing has a name, even.
JAMES: That she isn't. That there's such a thing as-dullness of heart. Acceptance. And letting go. Sooner or later we all give up, don't we?
ANNIE: Maybe you all do. It’s my idea of the original sin.
JAMES [LIGHTLY]: And Jacob was left alone, and wrestled with an angel until the breaking of the day and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him; and the angel said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And Jacob said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me. Amen.
HELEN: Wah. Wah.
(KATE moves to HELEN, touches her hand questioningly, and HELEN spells a word to her. KATE comprehends it, their first act of verbal communication, and she can hardly utter the word aloud, in wonder, gratitude, and deprivation; it is a moment in which she simultaneously finds and loses a child.)
ANNIE: I, love, Helen.
(She clutches the child to her, tight this time, not spelling, whispering into her hair.)
(She stops. The lights over the pump are taking on the color of the past, and it brings ANNIE’s head up, her eyes opening in fear; and as slowly as though drawn she rises, to listen, with her hand on HELEN’s shoulders. She waits, waits, listening with ears and eyes both, slowly here, slowly there: and hears only silence. There are no voices. The color passes on, and when her eyes come back to HELEN she can breathe the end of her phrase without fear:)