I found myself thinking not long ago about Helen Keller, specifically the famous scene in her autobiography where she describes cold water being pumped from a well onto one hand while Annie Sullivan spells out w-a-t-e-r in Helen’s other palm.
I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motion of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. . . . That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!
For whatever reason, I have always found this episode, even Helen Keller’s precocious style, to be deeply moving, especially as she flies around the house with her newfound knowledge—“every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life”—and feels remorse, for the first time, as she tries to reassemble a doll she had angrily broken. But what does it mean? I have stood in the very place, in Tuscumbia, Alabama, where this happened, and a little cast-iron model of the Keller family’s water pump sits in my study. But while Helen Keller describes the sensations of that moment in her celebrated life, she cannot explain what, exactly, happened in her mind, shrouded as she was in deafness and blindness from the age of 19 months. And nobody else seems to know, either.
But I do know that, to me, in a lifetime largely spent pushing and pulling words, language remains both mysterious and comforting. There was no Miracle Worker moment in my own childhood, of course, but certain scenes stand out with a retrospective meaning. I was very anxious, as a small child, to learn to read; but my highly literate parents, probably at the behest of some fashionable theory, preferred to let school do the job. This was immensely frustrating to me. I remember a visiting cousin holding up cardboard letters for me to identify, and successfully naming them. I remember making puns, and other elementary wordplay, before I could spell or read. I can also remember approaching my mother, sitting in her armchair while reading the New Yorker and smoking a cigarette, and asking her when I could go to school.
“Soon,” she replied, and sent me outdoors.
One of my earliest memories is of my father speaking gibberish for several minutes into the telephone, and my silent confusion. It was only years later that it occurred to me that he must have been speaking to his immigrant parents (both of whom died before I was 5 years old) in their native Armenian. Anyway, I grew up in a decidedly children-should-be-seen-and-not-heard household, and was always impressed by the ability of adults to speak in long sentences, even blocks of sentences, and conduct conversations. To be grown up, I inferred, meant that you could smoke, cross your legs, drink alcohol, part your hair, and talk at inordinate length using certain words—“goddammit,” for example—off-limits to youth.
I have implied elsewhere that school was more torment than joy for me, and I was certainly a timid and frightened first-grader in a place where I knew precisely no one. But the process of learning to read was unalloyed pleasure, and I can recall my teacher—a slightly stiff pedagogue named Mrs. Storm—summoning us to push our desks forward for the reading lesson. I suppose the closest I have come to Helen Keller’s water pump was the near-ecstasy I felt as I shoved my desk toward the blackboard, oblivious to everyone and everything around me, literally shaking in anticipation of turning letters into words.
Anyway, I became a journalist, not a poet; and it amuses me in retrospect that, at precisely the moment I was learning to read, happily encased in a newfound realm of sounds and symbols—vowels, capital letters, consonants, the “-ight” words—the world outside was a gathering mess. A presidential campaign was nearing its climax, the Hungarians were revolting unsuccessfully against the Russians, and the Suez Crisis was roiling London, Paris, my hometown of Washington, and the Middle East.
I must have heard something of all this—my family was keenly aware of Adlai Stevenson’s defeat, and Hungarian refugee children started showing up in school—but the gradual translation away from illiteracy is clearest, and surely most significant, in my memory: the thrill of comprehension as I walked past a sign, the novel sensation of following a story, the mixture of pity and contempt for slower classmates.
And a lesson in journalism as well. On any given day, the “news” may seem of supreme importance; but the news can be a series of recurring events, a loop of facts and numbers, and not everyone is paying strict attention. The poor Hungarians failed to liberate themselves, but learning to read meant freedom for me.