An essential preface to what you’re about to read: My husband Nate is one of the smartest people I know. His brain consumes, comprehends, and retains information on hundreds of different topics at a rapid speed. Due to his varied interests, he is incredibly open-minded and nonjudgmental. His arguments are firm yet respectful. His sense of humor is killer – delightfully biting and otherwordly goofy. We are both comedians and he is quick to call me out when one of my jokes gives off sexist or racist undertones, and forces me to be more creative in the process instead of defaulting to stereotypes. He is exactly the kind of person I wanted to marry. One of my biggest hopes for our daughter is that she inherits his razor sharp mind. He is an intellectual and wonderful person.
But there is this one thing.
About three years ago, we were eating dinner with our friends Kristin and Christopher at a Thai restaurant near our home in Los Angeles. (It should be noted that Kristin and Christopher are VERY close friends, the kind you want at the table when something this earth-shattering happens). The Singhas were flowing and spirits were high. Somehow we got on the topic of the movie Nell. The one with Jodie Foster and (apparently) Liam Neeson. For those of you who are not well-versed in 1994 dramatic cinema, it’s a movie about a girl named Nell who grew up alone in the forest with her twin sister. She speaks a mangled language and lacks all basic human social skills. Why Foster didn’t win an Oscar for this performance will never not make sense to me.
Then it happened. Nate made a silly joke at the table that was intended to be lighthearted, but actually revealed something much bigger. It went like this:
Nate: “I feel like Nell was, like, the white Helen Keller.”
A cold silence fell over the table as Nate gave himself a chuckle and took a big bite of his Pad Thai. When I realized that there wasn’t more to this “joke,” I had to lean over and ask a question that no woman should ever have to ask the man she is about to marry: “Do you think that Helen Keller was Black?”
Everything unfolded from there. Of course we spoke of nothing else for the rest of the meal. Kristin and Christopher were trying to piece together Nate’s fourth grade curriculum while my mind reeled. How does the smartest person I know, the son of an educator, think that Helen Keller was Black?! Should I be happy that this wonderful man went 20+ years naively thinking that a Black. Deaf. Blind. Woman born in 1880 America could grow up to lead a long, fulfilling, and inspiring life? I was grateful that this bomb was dropped at a quiet table with dear friends, and not during a job interview or in the middle of giving a TED Talk.
Nate chalked up the misunderstanding to a poorly illustrated children’s book (“it had a lot of shading!”). This book must have been the last word on Ms. Keller for Nate, because the seed was planted in his brain and no other information came along to dislodge it.
Nate and I went to “brother/sister” schools here in Washington, DC. His was all-boys and mine was all-girls. In Fourth through Sixth grades, I remember living and breathing everything Helen Keller. We watched The Miracle Worker, read the books, and prepared intricate dioramas about her life. Our schools were steps away from the National Cathedral, where the ashes of Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan are buried behind a wrought iron gate and a velvet curtain in St. Joseph’s Chapel. My school had weekly services in this space, and I spent many hours trying to peer through curtain and “see” Helen and Annie. Part of me honestly expected to see two skeletons in sunglasses huddled over a water pump. To think that while I was having these idiotic daydreams during church, Nate was only a few yards away, blissfully unaware of what would unfold 20 years later in a Thai restaurant in Hollywood.
Recently, I had the horrible feeling that maybe Nate never got a proper Helen Keller education and that his school wasn’t in the business of teaching young boys about remarkable women in American history. I was fuming.
So, last week, I sent a mass email to about 20 male friends, many of whom attended the same school as Nate. They all knew who Helen Keller was and definitely knew she was white. Many even remarked that the Kellers were extremely wealthy, because, again: Woman. Deaf. Blind. 1880 America…. let’s be honest.
Here are some of their responses:
Water Helen, Water! That’s about all I remember.
She was deaf and blind, which are the exact disabilities you would need to have to make it through life thinking that Helen Keller is black.
…I should also point out that Helen Keller lived during a time that is often rushed over in [high school] US History classes… I remember that in US History, we didn’t study much recent history with any depth at all. Just sort rushed through everything and learned basic facts that could fit on a flashcard about events and people. Still, hard to believe that Nate thought she was black.
Definitely always knew she was a white woman. There was that play Miracle Worker, maybe I was forced to read that at a young age…not sure.
Yeah, we did a whole big unit on her, which included but was not limited to; reading a book, watching a movie, and bumbling around campus blindfolded and ear-muffed. we never did discuss her ethnicity, but she was for sure white on the cover of the book and in the film, you know, because, helen keller was white.
I just assumed that Nate was confusing Helen Keller with Harriet Tubman, but it seems it is much worse than that.
So, there you have it. The fine young gentleman of this country are indeed being educated on Helen Keller. I no longer have to break down the doors of these schools to give them a lesson myself. Though I imagine that lesson would be full of factual errors and inappropriate grunting. It seems as though my husband just suffered a rare “black hole” of information during a whirlwind time in his education.
These lapses must happen all the time. Here’s mine: It wasn’t until I was a Freshmen in college that I realized that states have their own capitol buildings, senates, and legislatures. I was in Nashville, taking a tour of the Tenneesee State capitol, when it dawned on me that this was just like a mini version of what I had learned as a kid in Washington, DC. I’d like to think this was a dig at how the citizens of DC lack proper representation (despite taxation), but, no.
Are there any basic educational facts that you were completely ignorant of until decades later?! This is a safe space to share.