Monday, March 25, 2013

MaryAnn's Helen Keller Moment

Based on conversations I've had at the park, in parent-teacher conferences, or at family reunions, I think we all agree: kids are each so different. Basic neurological stages are similar (infant, toddler, childhood, teenager, etc.), but millions of brain connections are left to define someone as an individual. They happen in a different order and at a different pace. Uniqueness is a beautiful process that spans a life-time.

At 18-months, Little Miss Cienna was jabbering away in full sentences.  At 20-months, MaryAnn felt content with just a few important words. 'Mama' and 'Dada' and 'bye-bye' and 'no' and 'me' were sufficient enough to make her world go 'round.

Until one recent day...

MaryAnn accompanied Brent and I to an adult-only church meeting while Kenny and Diggy held down the fort with the rest of the troops at home. She and I started walking the halls about halfway through. We entered a small room and she instantly communicated to me using her limited grunts and moans that she had a desire to sit in a big folding chair and get pushed in up near the small table. "Dada," she said as she pointed to another chair, expecting me to join her.

I did. And we sat feeling very pleased with ourselves.

A minute later, she wiggled down and headed towards the door and pushed it closed. She turned to me and smiled some more, her body filled with light because of such an accomplishment.

"Door," I said, acknowledging her actions. "Can you say 'door?'" This wasn't the first time I'd attempted to expand her vocabulary a bit.

"Dada," replied MaryAnn proudly as usual.

I smiled.

Another minute later, we found ourselves back in the hallway and MaryAnn spotted a man she'd never met before. She seemed to want to communicate her discovery to me so she pointed at him and said, "Dada."

"Is that Dada?" I asked, sounding surprised.

Knowing that the man was indeed not her father, I noticed a jolt of shock spring through her body as she said, "No," and continued to stare, suddenly feeling very vulnerable. She seemed to recognize and care for the first time that what came out of her mouth was not at all what she knew to be true in her mind. A new connection was born.

She gulped and licked her lips as she continued to stare, surely taking subconscious note that she'd be much more careful about calling strangers 'Dada' in the future.

Then a younger person walked by and I asked, "Is that Ken Ken?"

Still confused and a bit nervous, MaryAnn replied, "No."

"Where is Ken Ken?' I probed.

This time, and for the first time since learning 'mama' and 'dada' over six months ago, MaryAnn paused to think about what was about to come out of her mouth. Then "Home" slipped out.

This time a jolt of emotion went through my veins. I had just witnessed a neurological victory...the conscious beginning of a new language path that we could now expand out into thousands of new directions.

A few days later, I pointed to Kirsten at home and asked MaryAnn, "Who is that?"

Sure enough, instead of instinctively spouting out "dada," she looked carefully at Kirsten and said, "Ti Ti."

And the next day...when MaryAnn repeatedly urged me into the kitchen to get her a drink by saying, "dada, dada," I gently reminded her of her new capability.

"You said 'dada,' MaryAnn. Do you want Dada or water?" My lips moved slowly so she could soak in the new mouth movements associated with the phonetic sound the letter 'w' makes.

"Wa-wa," she repeated. And a couple of weeks later, MaryAnn uses her new vocabulary word 'wa-wa' like a pro.

Well done, MaryAnn. When you're old enough to analyze this triumph in a bit more detail, I'm sure you'll agree with Helen Keller who said:

"When I learned the meaning of 'I' and 'me' and found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me".1

A bit of history: Helen Keller's monumental day occurred about a month after meeting Anne Sullivan on the morning of March 3, 1887.2  Nearly 126 years later on the evening of March 2, 2013, my little MaryAnn received her spark of linguistic understanding. It thrills me to think that sparks of recognition and rays of sunshine occur for little learners somewhere in the world at a constant rate of ongoing intelligence. If we could measure it and see it with our natural eyes, I wonder what it would look like from the moon. But I think inspiring moments are more of a light that burns in the bosom. I know Helen Keller felt it because she also said, "The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched--they must be felt with the heart."2

Quotes and facts:
Photo courtesy of

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