Teacher Professor

August 29, 2010

Walking a Mile in Her Shoes- Right into a Tree

Filed under: Autism,Exceptionality issues,Twice-exceptional — Teacher Professor @ 10:55 am

Elizabeth and Ray both had friends over to spend the night this past Friday night.  I treat this as though this were ordinary, but inside I’m squealing….

We have a tradition of “Friday Night Pizza/Movie Night” and so we ordered Dominos and settled in with a rental.  Because of Vicki’s job with the movie theater, we’ve seen more than our fair share of recent movies, so I was hunting for something that wasn’t too scary, not too controversial, and something that would interest the kids.  I accidentally chose two movies, that, according to Ray and Bruce, were “too girly”- “Annie” and “The Miracle Worker”.  Elizabeth hadn’t seen the “Miracle Worker” about Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan, so that was the chosen one, and Elizabeth and Katie settled in with their popcorn and multitude of cushions while the Ray and Bruce were vaulting over the couches.  Vicki and I sat at the dining table behind them all to corral the boys and to talk over Kentucky slushes.

Within minutes, the boys were hooked, too… “You mean, she can’t see OR hear?… Tell her to STOP that!  Oh wait, how would you do that?”  Within a few minutes, they were grunting at each other in mimic, and we had a side conversation about “How would you communicate what you need when you can’t hear yourself or see anything?”  They looked thoughtful and watched Annie Sullivan spelling into Helen’s hand… problemsolving.  I could see Ray making “letters” in his hand, feeling the process.

I laughed hysterically- quietly- when Helen was brought back to her family after learning how to behave, and she started reverting back to her tantrumy, get-her-own-way behavior.  “She’s testing her,” remarked Ray, clearly understanding the motivations and repeating what I have told him through gritted teeth on a number of occasions.

They cheered- CHEERED!- when the “breakthrough” came about and Helen understood that “water” was the name for the liquid.  Ray vaulted back over the couch and ran around the house naming things, sharing in Helen’s jubilation and language breakthrough.  He and Bruce and I had a quick conversation about how language is about naming things and seeing how things relate.  I could see Ray pondering the role of language and what it would be to be language-less. For Ray, my child to whom language has come so easily and so fluently, this was a new concept for him.  He laughed and said “That was pretty cool that Annie could teach her to talk.”  Vicki and I smiled at him in shared teacher joy and I said “Yup, that’s why I’m a teacher, because that break through is amazing.”  He smiled at me, hugged me, and I could see some respect in his eyes.  It was a moment…

Throughout all of this, Elizabeth was quiet.  She and Katie laughed at the right spots and got quiet at the right spots, but throughout, didn’t say a whole lot.  She didn’t have any questions, and when I asked, she said “It was a good movie.”  She listened when Ray and I were talking, but didn’t engage.  I didn’t think much about it…

Until Saturday, later afternoon, when I was at my office writing on a grant due the next week.  I got a phone call from her, wailing and weeping…

She had taken out the movie on Saturday afternoon and shown it to Emily, who was not part of the sleepover.  James overheard her saying “You gotta see this!” and they watched it again.  Then, they went outside to play when it was over.

When they went outside, the two of them apparently had been talking about what it would be like to be blind and deaf.  Elizabeth closed her eyes, and put on a hat and played in the yard…. where she ran right into a tree- hard.  She got a bloody nose, a scrape on her chin and a scrape on her knee.  She looks like she got beaten up. Just a side note- Picture Day is this coming Wednesday- of course.  We may have documentation of this forever.

I had to laugh as I was patching her back together when I came home, and I asked her which tree jumped out in front of her.  In her very literal way, she said “No, it didn’t jump in front of me.  I just didn’t see it.  It would be hard to be blind and deaf!  I won’t do that again.”

I was struck at the difference between my two.  They were both intrigued by the movie- both intrigued at how someone dealt with such significant differences.  And yet, Ray processed it all through with his language.  He thought about it, pretended a little bit and saw through the implications.

And Elizabeth… Elizabeth had to experience it.   Elizabeth didn’t have the language to understand someone else’s perspective.  She couldn’t imagine what Helen felt, so she had to live it.  She’s not normally a daring kid- I have never had to worry about her taking dangerous risks- normally, she’s too afraid to try new things.  Today, she took a risk, she decided to try it, and got a bloody nose.

I can’t decide if this is a good thing or a bad thing.  I don’t want her hurting herself, but I do want her trying.  I want to see her experiencing.  She is so sensory-oriented that it isn’t real to her unless she touches it, sees it, or gets knocked down by it.

I told her that we would try “being” blind and deaf again- but with more care.  After all, life knocks you down and you gotta get back up.  It’s important to know what others feel- even if you run into a tree.

As if to emphasize this point, TED’s video for today is RSA Animate’s exploration of the need for empathy.  Check it out…


  1. Fascinating contrast! Maybe you inspired another teacher too, hmm?

    Comment by Mamamum — August 29, 2010 @ 12:10 pm | Reply

  2. Oh wow — my Rose and I were just talking about that amazing “W-A-T-E-R” moment — she hasn’t seen the movie but knows the sign alphabet and has heard of Helen Keller — we practiced the letters together so she could feel it in her hand. She thought it would be very hard to tell them apart.

    All sorts of ways of learning! Lovely post.

    Comment by JoyMama — August 30, 2010 @ 5:44 am | Reply

  3. Sounds like a truly great night and definitely a great movie. (Took this as a recommendation, will be showing at my family’s couch very soon.) And what an amazing side-by-side set of reactions. Thanks for the insight!

    Comment by Elizabeth — September 9, 2010 @ 9:49 am | Reply

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