It Was Mother

It Was World

It Was World
Wayras Olivier

World Teachers' Day, sentenced on the 5th twelve years ago this October, paroles our gratitude for those teachers who continue to school juveniles on the art of prison breaks. Molding good behaviour, as it were, with critical thinking skills that legitimatize, above all else, their escape. Slightly dirty myself, after digging a tunnel to reduce my own long sentence, I'm inclined (however reluctantly) to overlook that greatly admired "teacher," Atticus Finch, and center my tunnel vision on that arguably brighter star from 1963—the one who demanded justice on the silver screen by first disciplining the Keller's pity and sorrow for their near terminally imprisoned feral child, and second, regulating their daughter's indulgent reliance on a world that obeys a self-centred order. Teaching Helen, one finger gesture at a time, that the spirit of the law itself is not order unless it is subordinated to the letter. Praxis, however, as any respectable teacher would agree, requires the merging of both theory and practice to spark insight. "I wanted to teach her what language is...I know without it to do nothing but obey is—no gift, obedience without understanding is a blindness—too," Anne Sullivan (Anne Bancroft) laments to Mr. Keller prior to the great water displacement scene that rises Anne herself to authenticate eureka by shrieking "She [Helen] knows!"

One must concede that prison visitors (much like teachers) have the freedom to be two-faced. To wear, if they so choose, a face they know a prisoner does not deserve to be greeted with, or the one they do. Sentenced to death without trial on charges of seditious intent to dethrone Theoderic the Great, Roman consul Boethius, for those who may recall, received a visitor "who knew." For those who may not recall, will most likely assume is nothing more than a head trip, when Boethius recounts to the reader the visitor who inexplicably paid him a visit in the final year of his life. One reads with great suspicion when this sweet, rational man describes in vivid detail the vision that hovered over him which, let's face it, could only be one thing—a head trip. Or for those Jungians out there, a projection of his animus: the mouthpiece to a man's psyche that minutes to him in soft whispers the unexcavated contents slumbering in his soul, that managed as a mere audible pattern of feminine intelligence to somehow exteriorize itself into a three-dimensional vitality. Awakened, and in a position to write down presumably what no one other than himself could hear or see, Boethius went on to describe the anodyne lady. And, for those who haven't by now guessed, or can't recall the name of Boethius's teacher, look no further than the title of his posthumously published manuscript: The Consolation of Philosophy:

"Her dress was a miracle of fine cloth and meticulous workmanship, and, as I later learned, she had woven it herself. But it had darkened like a smoke-blackened family statue in the atrium as if through neglect and was dingy and worn. I could see worked into the bottom border the Greek letters π (pi—for practice) and slightly higher Θ(theta—for theory) with steps that were marked between them to form a ladder by which one might climb from the lower to the upper. Some ruffians had done violence to her elegant dress, and clearly bits of the fabric had been torn away."

A hissing wind or a tongue-tied breeze, that is, was it free or earned knowledge, that shakes and leaves Boethius, under house arrest in Pavia Italy in 523 A.D., to branch out of himself? For your consideration, just one of the many extravagant claims his "teacher" makes: "I am accustomed to being attacked and was a veteran of such battles even before the time of my servant Plato. I have been doing battle forever against proud stupidity." (Aforesaid by Boethius's description: "Some ruffians had done violence to her elegant dress.") I invite you to recall the past and present vicissitudes of your own fortunes when navigating this one:

"When nature brought you out of your mother's womb, you were naked and poor, and helpless. And I accepted you and was kind to you. I pampered you and gave you more than you needed. Indeed one could say that I spoiled you and that is why you are so angry with me. I gave you all kinds of affluence and luxury, whatever was in my power, and you took it as if it were your right. Now that I have taken back, you ought to thank me for the use of what was mine anyway rather than complain of the loss of what was never yours."

If it is to be believed, seriously, that this woman is more than just a formidable process of introspection, then there is no miracle. What is more likely? A lettered specter that renders superfluous the human being's most precious endowment: contemplation. Or, that a lettered man aided by his innate feminine capacity for erudition worked out the mechanics of justice. (This was, a thousand plus years before Thèodicèe, where Leibniz tackled why evil exists in a good world, or its more pedestrian declaration, how come bad things happen to good people.) Read how, with her diction, she furnishes Boethius with the correct words for him to make useful sense of his darkness, like lines of latitude creating right and proper space in his head for true sight and sound to emerge. And notice the power that decorous language has to unflatten even the most abject conditions with an added degree or two of height. And for the reader, one is simply forced to forgo the trite takeaway "when the student is ready the teacher appears" as is, in reality, never really the case, but rather when the student is not ready, good fortune seems to sometimes merit a teacher to emerge.

"My disappointment was bitter at the time; but little by little I came to realize that it was not kind or wise to force this poor dumb creature out of his element, and after a while I felt happy in the thought that perhaps he had returned to the sea." That was Helen Keller remembering, in passing, the horseshoe crab she took for a prisoner that left her embittered when it managed to escape. In fact, her book, The Story of My Life, more or less begins where The Miracle Worker ends. The moment when the "poor dumb creature," (who at 19 months young, lost her sight and hearing and was indeed forced out of her element at the age of six by her implacable visitor Anne Sullivan), spontaneously makes the almost quixotic connection that her teacher's hand gestures are more than a mere "finger game." Surely by now it is well understood that information and light never vanish permanently after crossing an event horizon—a black hole's lip—if one also acknowledges that the space in our mind is expansive enough for black holes. Light can, with uncompromising assiduity and patience, be emancipated from the enclaves of our cortical horizon, as Helen strenuously demands from herself the strength to will across her lips the irrecoverable memory necessary to recreate the sound "wawa" at the water pump. Sullivan merely makes the event "relative." Snapping her claws with Helen's, giving mass to the word "water' as the genesis of that which both creates and describes the experiences, in this case wet and slippery, inside Helen's interior. Stunning, is it not? For no other reason than Helen's awakening required no religious intervention. Films and books, you'll notice, rarely share the same depths. My favorite passage, which takes place long after the climax of the film, is when Helen is introduced to the deep end:

"A day or two afterward I was stringing beads of different sizes in symmetrical groups—two large beads, three small ones, and so on. I had made many mistakes, and Miss Sullivan had pointed them out again and again with gentle patience. Finally I noticed a very obvious error in the sequence and for an instant I concentrated my attention on the lesson and tried to think how I should have arranged the beads. Miss Sullivan touched my forehead and spelled with decided emphasis, "Think.'

In a flash I knew that the word was the name of the process that was going on in my head. This was my first conscious perception of an abstract idea."

Yet this passage sinks strangely to the shallow end, summarizing love as an abstraction akin to fleeting clouds that can't be touched, and flowers yearning for rain water, with Sullivan concluding: "Without love you would not be happy or want to play." Just a few pages prior, she had the good sense to instruct Helen that love is not like the warm sensation of the sun: "But Miss Sullivan shook her head," a confused Helen recounts in the passage, "and I was greatly puzzled and disappointed. I thought it strange that my teacher could not show me love." But she already had. With good sense, too (in the film) that excuses such a shallow verse. You remember it right? That remarkable scene (left out of the book) when Sullivan, with her protracted Saturnian glare, observes Helen orbiting the dining room table like an entitled star, shovelling with her bare hands globules of convertible energy into her trap, demands that Helen use a spoon. The scene is long. Relentless. And draining, even for the viewer, when the spiraling demand is met with stellar resistance. Now that's a classroom.

It takes inspiration and pressure, we're reminded, to draw out potential, and oh how we whine about the latter, yet it's this very reminding that on grounds of conscience motions us, as a species, to prop up Helen's story so it may be heard and seen as a work of art. Or restored, like Boethius. The teacher as artist ensures that a grooved depression furrowed in one's heart need not remain a contemptible rut that damns us. For they seem to always find a way to make a narrow channel dilate into a strait releasing us into a far superior body of water that desires nothing but flow. With a sailing philosophy that descends not as a conspicuous and warm sensation like the sun, but a barely visible yet attainable wonder like Saturn, that from her long enduring orbit one can recover with wringing gratitude, the theory from her inflexible ellipse that is one's great fortune to practice.