Michael Gerson wrote of the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” His phrasing is as subtle and nuanced as the offense itself and reminded me of a visit our family made several years ago to Ivy Green, the birthplace and childhood home of Helen Keller. In the summers, William Gibson’s play, The Miracle Worker, is performed at an outdoor theater on the grounds. The play was adapted into a movie (actually several of them). They all tell the remarkable story of a little girl who though deaf and blind as the result of an illness early in life, nonetheless learned to read, write and speak. In fact, Helen learned to read in several languages and graduated from Radcliffe College.
But as the title indicates, TMW is as much the story of Helen’s teacher, Anne Sullivan, as it is about Helen. Helen’s mother, Kate, had read in Dickens’s travelogue, American Notes, the story of Laura Bridgman. Like Helen, Laura was blind and deaf but had been taught to read, write, and do basic arithmetic. Filled with hope, Kate took her daughter to a specialist in Baltimore who referred them to Alexander Graham Bell. Bell recommended her to the Perkins School of the Blind, where Laura Bridgman had been educated. They contacted the school and Anne Sullivan made the trip from Boston to Tuscumbia, Alabama, to become Helen’s teacher. TMW is the story of what happens when the gritty young lady from Massachusetts meets the six-year old from Alabama whose disabilities were overshadowed only by the excessive indulgence she has been shown by her sincere but enabling family.
I think I’ve seen all of the movie versions of TMW and they are all wonderful (though the older the version the more I like it). It’s a great movie for anyone, but I would guess that it finds a special place in the heart of those who teach. I would encourage anyone who teaches to watch the movie once a year to remind themselves of why they went into teaching.
If you’ve seen the movie, you’ll remember that the pivotal scenes center on keys and who has them. But another overarching theme in the movie is Anne’s persistent refusal to allow Helen get away with anything less than what she is capable of. She won’t allow Helen to eat with her hands, eat off the plate of others, or throw tantrums—even though her family has raised her this way and at times, thinks Anne to be unreasonably strict for not allowing these. The truth is, Annie isn’t being cruel, and it’s her belief in Helen that refuses to allow her (or Helen) to settle for less. Though everyone around her is content with Helen learning a few tricks, Annie won’t settle for anything less than Helen becoming all that she can. Such is the nature of love.
And such is the nature of Christ. It’s so much like Jesus to look at an impulsive fisherman and speak of him as a rock. It’s so much like Him to face a fledgling group of followers who would all desert Him and speak not of their defection but of what they would one day accomplish. It’s so like Him to tell a woman caught in adultery that not only was she forgiven, but to go and sin no more. Someone has made the observation that Jesus came into the world, not so much to convict us of our sin, but to convince us of our possibilities. There was no soft bigotry of low expectations with Him. There never is with a miracle worker.