It has a name

When I was in high school, our drama group put on the play The Miracle Worker. As was the case for most productions, I was a backstage participant. My main job for this particular show was to keep the script up-to-date with blocking, sound and light cues, and any other notes which would make the play run like clockwork. (I also sometimes ran out to get snacks and beverages for the director. If I remember correctly, she particularly liked orange juice on the rocks that semester. Showbusiness is so glamorous!)


My older sister Becky, on the other hand, was cast as one of the two major acting roles—Annie Sullivan. If you’re familiar with the play or the movie or just the story of Helen Keller, then you know that Annie Sullivan is hired by the family of a little girl who had been blind and deaf since contracting a fever before she was two-years old. Annie is given the nearly impossible job of being Helen’s teacher. Through lots of persistence as well as a host of inventive teaching methods, clever little Helen is able to connect the significance of the letters which Annie painstakingly signs into her hand with the name of the actual object.


The pivotal moment in the play is when Annie and Helen are by the water pump. As water pours over Helen’s hand, she gestures for her teacher to sign the word. Annie had done this many times before, but this time something clicks. “It has a name,” Annie says. “W-A-T-E-R.” You see something new in Helen’s expression. She signs the letters in response. Then she stumbles around searching for more words to discover and name. It’s such a powerful scene.


My daughter Ella and I visited the place where all of those events occurred. It’s a beautifully preserved home in Tuscumbia, Alabama. We saw the dining room where Annie made her first stand against Helen’s spoiled mealtime behavior, the little house where teacher and student lived alone for a few weeks to focus on learning this new way to communicate, and the actual water pump where that critical realization happened.


We also got to see what happened after Helen had that water pump moment. We saw newspaper articles and citations from world leaders. There were photos of her with U.S. presidents and actors. There were letters behind glass display cases which she had written to cousins and other family members with her own little hand when she was 8-years old. Her handwriting was remarkably distinct and precise. Giant books of raised Braille letters were scattered around the room, along with heavy typewriter-like machines used to add those raised bumps to the pages. Helen Keller went on to write 14 books and hundreds of speeches and essays. She lived an extraordinary 87 years, inspiring people and advocating for others.


As we walked through the house and strolled around the grounds, I was struck by the power of words. Helen’s ability to communicate changed everything for her. She was loved and cared for by her parents before she knew what W-A-T-E-R was, but she was trapped. When Annie Sullivan came along and refused to see a little girl with no hope, Helen was given a key and her life was forever transformed. If it weren’t for that caring teacher and Helen’s own desire to learn, none of us would even know her name, let alone pay $7 to see the bed where she slept. The whole experience reminds us that anything is possible. You can understand why Helen is quoted as saying, “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do something that I can do.”

Like a child

I work at a preschool a couple of days a week. I know that these kids ranging from one to five-years old will eventually grow up to be adults with jobs and receding hairlines and mortgages and wrinkles and car payments, but right now they’re just as quirky as can be, and I adore them.


It’s crazy to me that every grown-up—every accountant, cashier, librarian, car mechanic, U.S. senator…everyone—started off as a weird, funny kid. They all had a favorite thing that held no real value but meant the world to them. Maybe it was a lovingly shredded baby blanket or a ratty stuffed animal or book they demanded to have read to them so frequently that it had to be taped and re-taped back together again. As a toddler, each of them probably had a day where they just wanted to carry around this one matchbox car or tube of chapstick or empty tissue box, and if someone tried to peel it from their chubby little fingers, they would howl and carry on like it was the end of days. They all refused to eat some type of food which they would eventually tolerate if not grow to like. (It’s curious how often those same kids who turn up their noses at broccoli try to eat the dryer lint they just fished out of the trashcan.)


For about an hour of the time I’m working at preschool, I sit in a big playroom and watch classes of kids cycle through. It’s meant to be a break for their teachers and an opportunity for the kids to practice sharing and cleaning up and, most importantly, learn through playtime. They are absolutely fascinating to observe. I love to see how they work together or play alone. As long as they’re being kind and thoughtful, there’s no wrong way to build with blocks or play in the kitchen center or line up the Fisher-Price animals.


When our youngest son Ezra was around 7 or 8, anytime we were on a family trip and we had to stay in a hotel, Ezra would get so excited when he saw the room had a desk. He would instantly want to play “Office.” We would unplug the desk phone (so no random calls would be placed) and line up to talk to the “Office Man.” Ezra would ask us, “What’s your problem?” and we would make up some dilemma. It was amazing. This same kid who struggled to tie his own shoes (assuming he could find them first) was solving problems like it was his full-time job (which, according to him—Office Man—it was). Lost dog? Office Man would call up somebody who could find that dog in no time. Feeling under the weather? Office Man would find medicine (which looked a lot like torn-up pieces of hotel stationery) that would cure you in an instant.


Unfortunately, this hotel-office-vacation game, along with so many of the things we enjoyed when we’re younger, fails to captivate us in the same way when we get older. We become too mature, too sophisticated, and too busy for such childishness. Maybe that’s one of the best things about being around young children. Even though I’m absolutely in the adult phase of my life, I can still pretend and play. I can lose myself in a silly game. For a few precious moments, I can recapture the feeling of being a child, care-free and quirky and limited only by the boundlessness of my imagination.