Monday, November 16, 2015

The Silent Storm

Children act out what they read. When I was in elementary school, my friends and I played "Helen Keller." Since I was littlest in my class I took her part, rambunctiously relishing the opportunity to unleash all self-restraint to mimic the wild and willful tantrums of young, untrained Helen.

We had all read The Silent Storm by Marion Marsh Brown. Though Helen was phenomenal, it was Annie who was our heroine. She was the throw-away girl of an Irish family who sent her to the alms house after her mother's death, who suffered unspeakable degradations there, and whose persistent pleading to "learn to read," finally won her a place at the famous Perkins School for the Blind. She was uneducated, unsocialized, and untamed, but her passion to learn to read prevailed over all obstacles, and her hard fought battle to overcome her miserable disadvantages gained her not only the opportunity to read, but friendship, admiration, and honors by teachers and students alike.

But silently, inside her tough Irish exterior, raged a storm of longing to have a life with purpose. She didn't want to "be" somebody, she wanted to serve somebody. Every benefit she had received, from the special education to the free operations on her deformed eyes, left her yearning to give to others. "My life would have meaning if only I could serve."

Her chance came with an invitation to try to penetrate the formidable barriers of blindness and deafness of a seven-year-old child, a feat no expert in the nation had accomplished. Helen was considered an unreachable misfit, which perfectly suited her to the fierce stubbornness of Annie Sullivan. Annie was no stranger to fighting to beat the odds.

The Silent Storm is the tale of their battle together and one of the strongest friendships ever forged. The uneducated, untrained "Teacher," turned the key that unlocked Helen's prison and returned a child to the bosom of her family, and released an intellect and personality that grew up to bless the world.

In my class of handicapped children, Helen was unremarkable. We were heartlessly uncompassionate and unsympathetic to her plight, but, Annie was an American hero equal in stature in our eyes to George Washington or John Glenn. Probably we were envious of Helen. To have someone as loyal and faithful as Annie devote her entire life to rescuing a hopeless child from ignorance to successfully completing a Radcliffe education was inspiring. If only we had appreciated the equal sacrifices that were being made to help us accomplish more than our friends and neighbors could imagine possible for us at the time.

Still, though Annie died before we were born, she bestowed some of her gifts to us, something of her tenacity and toughness unconsciously shaped our spirits, subtly stiffened our backbones for the same harsh realities we would face as we entered a sighted world. Something of Annie had mysteriously crept out of the pages of that gripping biography I read as a child to influence my understanding that I was going to have to fight to gain acceptance too.

Her same grit and determination was necessary for me in my college entrance and job interviews, where I felt her chin-lifting defiance of all the same objections she had to face herself and taught Helen to stand up against lending me courage to persuade the doubters to give me a chance. Annie Sullivan had gone before me and took every "no," as her permission to find a way to do the impossible. I'm sure I followed her example as I reversed the situation as a Braille reading mother teaching her sighted children to make sense of the symbols on their printed pages. We both knew the longing to read, and the incomparable wonder of opening that door to language for a child.

After years of fruitless searching, I recently managed to obtain a Braille copy of this childhood favorite, and just finished reading it to my youngest son. After 50 years, I remembered every incident, every struggle, every victory perfectly as if I had read the story just last week.

There is no telling what life lessons a nine-year-old can carry away from a book and into the world they will encounter. Children indeed act out what they read.

For the joy of reading,

Liz

9 comments:

  1. This is the book in your CMI talk! I haven't read it either.

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    1. Yes, the book I could hardly talk about in that talk without bursting into tears. Knowledge touched with emotion, CM said, and I still remember sitting in my fourth grade room reading and having to hide my tears because that book moved me so much at nine years old.
      Liz

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  2. Just ordered a copy through ABE Books.

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  3. Liz
    Thank you for sharing your passion for Annie Sullivan, whilst I'd thought of her the books I read focused more on Helen.
    and thank you for sharing your more personal story! Contemplating you teaching your son to read:)
    In my case I'm hearing impaired, it just is, and you just do.

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    1. Erin,

      Thank you. Language is so crucial to our existence, I believe the human brain finds whatever means it can to make communication possible. I'm sure it was frustrating for my children to have a blind mother teaching reading, but at least they also learned the extreme value of it in addition to the skill. Helen and Annie had this in common: within each of them was a thirst for knowledge so powerful that they overcame the language barriers they had.

      Liz

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  4. I ordered a copy after hearing you talk on it during the Delectable Education podcast. Can't wait to share it with my children, Liz. Bless you!

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    1. Amy, I hope you all enjoy it half as much as I have.

      Liz

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  5. I just ordered a copy, too! You mentioned this book in one of the podcast episodes. I loved hearing more about it here.

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    1. Kimberlee,

      That book has always symbolized the importance of one life in rescuing
      another. I hope you enjoy it half as much as I did at nine.

      Liz

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