Illustration of Helen Keller and her teacher, Annie Sullivan

The Miracle Worker

by William Gibson

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What does Annie accomplish in the breakfast room with Helen?

What type of things does she accomplish?

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Because of her disability, Helen has not been held to the same standards as other children. In their dysfunctional family dynamic, the Kellers do not wish to deal realistically with the fact that Helen is blind and deaf. It is as if their pity for her is so great that they cannot give her the normal discipline with which parents raise their children. But the paradoxical result is that Helen is treated almost as if she is not human. Instead of having a place at the table, she is permitted to walk around the table and grab things at will from the plates of the other family members. The unfortunate analogy that comes to mind is one of a family pet being fed from the table.

Annie immediately recognizes that this is not only wrong but appalling. She asserts control by getting the Kellers to allow her to take charge of the situation and to begin teaching Helen to behave and to eat her meals in the way children should. In doing this, she accomplishes two things. First, she establishes that if she is to be Helen's teacher, the family (including the imperious patriarch Captain Keller) must follow her rules, not the other way around, as perhaps would be more typical in a situation where Annie is considered part of the "servant" class. Second—and this is obviously just as important—she is changing the family dynamic. From this point, Helen is longer uncontrolled, free to behave in a totally undisciplined and essentially uncivilized way, taking food from other people's palates. Third, though it takes time for the message to sink in, Annie impresses upon the Kellers that their entire approach to the upbringing of Helen has been mistaken and harmful. The scene illustrates the general principle that when a disabled child is raised with a lack of structure, everyone ends up losing, especially the child.

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Anne Sullivan ("Annie") is a twenty-year-old teacher who has just finished her own education at The Perkins School for the Blind. After being hired by Captain Arthur Keller to aid in the education of his blind and deaf daughter, Helen Keller, Annie moves in with the family in order to attempt to restore some order and structure to Helen's life. Unfortunately, Helen is not interested in that order or in being told what to do; she prefers to cause mayhem, knocking out one of Annie's teeth and locking her in Helen's room, which forces the family to have to rescue the woman by climbing up a ladder to the bedroom window.

Annie, however, has as much gumption as Helen. When Helen runs around the table and picks food off of other plates in the breakfast room the next morning, Annie proclaims that she will not have pity for this "tyrant":

The whole house turns on her whims, is there anything she wants she doesn't get? I'll tell you what I pity, that the sun won't rise and set for her all her life, and every day you're telling her it will, what good will your pity do her when you're under the strawberries, Captain Keller?

Although the Keller family is outraged by Annie's brash approach, Annie manages to wrangle them out of the room so that she can have one-on-one time to work with Helen. Helen and Annie have a massive, very physical fight within the room. Annie retaliates when Helen tries to hit her, which teaches Helen that there are consequences for her behavior. Helen gropes around the room, knocking over furniture and creating a mess, with Annie repeatedly placing her back in her own chair. Through sheer persistence and a bit of physical force, Annie manages to get Helen to eat off her own plate for the first time—and with a spoon rather than her hands, no less! Helen also learns to fold a napkin at this time. Although these may seem like small gestures, they are huge victories for both Annie and Helen. Through this scene, Annie realizes that Helen's worst handicap is not her deafness or blindness, but rather her family's pity and indulgence, which allows her to get away with poor behavior.

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At breakfast Helen had been walking around and taking food off of other people's plates. Annie, after an exchange with the Captain, asks the family to leave so that she can try to teach Helen how to behave.

Annie tries to work with Helen, but Helen is being resistive. What results is a pretty intense physical fight between Annie and Helen (I think this is the scene that my classes always like best!). At the end Annie comes out with Helen, Helen rushes to her mother, but Annie proudly announces that Helen ate from her own plate with a spoon and then folded her napkin.

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