Teacher and actress shares Anne Sullivan’s story to inspire others
By SUE SUCHYTA
DEARBORN – By bringing Anne Sullivan’s story to life for students and teachers, and inspiring others to discover and use their hidden talents, Collette Cullen refocuses her own inspirational magic.
When Cullen, a Dearborn native, reluctantly retired in 2010 after 38 years of teaching, she began to develop a one-woman show that uses the character of Anne Sullivan, renown for her work with Helen Keller, to inspire teachers, and to encourage adults and children find their own inner strengths and “magic.”
For more information, go to anniesullivanspeaks.com. To contact Cullen, call 313-522-5726 or reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This month marks the debut of Cullen’s book, “Annie Finds Her Magic,” which blends Sullivan’s story with the inspirational elements reflected the one-woman show. It features photos of local college student, actress, and historical re-enactor Jillian Drapala of Dearborn Heights, with photography by Cynthia Frabutt of Dearborn.
Cullen said each chapter starts with a reflective question, so that readers will learn not just about Sullivan, but about themselves, their learning style, and who they are.
As a special education teacher who worked for Wayne County Regional Educational Service Agency and the Southgate Community School District, Cullen said that just as Sullivan saved Keller’s life, she saved Cullen’s by bringing a new project and focus to her life.
Keller said in a well-known quote that the day she met Sullivan was her “soul’s birthday.” Building on this thought, Cullen, who has always enjoyed theater activities in the classroom and in her personal life, said she began to develop a presentation using Sullivan as the focus, to celebrate and uplift teachers, and to encourage her colleagues to focus on the emotional and spiritual needs of children.
Sullivan’s experiences teaching Keller serve as a framework to communicate the goal of teaching through relationship building, as well as providing an historical and philosophical overview of Sullivan.
Cullen originally intended her presentation for adults. It has evolved to appeal to children as well, as her character encourages them to overcome obstacles and reach for their dreams.
She said after she retired, she missed teaching, and became concerned about the increasing emphasis on teaching children to pass standardized tests.
“I felt that we were over-testing, we weren’t accommodating for individual differences, we weren’t figuring out what that kid would thrive at,” she said.
She said that like Sullivan, she has always been an outspoken “spitfire” about justice and righteousness. She said Sullivan gave her the vehicle to spread the message about promoting a student-based method of teaching that fosters excellence in a nurturing setting.
“I think teachers are not regarded enough, not cherished enough, not helped enough, that we need to support them in their vision for kids,” Cullen said. “No one was advocating for kids or teachers.”
She said portraying a character is a way to engage others in learning.
“If you know your purpose, everything in life makes better sense,” she said. “My purpose is love and voice — not necessarily my voice.”
Cullen said as a special education teacher she worked with children who were deaf, blind, and who had cerebral palsy, and had no way to communicate. She said she also worked with emotionally impaired children who had life situations that “silenced their voice.”
“It was something that I observed so often in my life that it made me believe that if we could get our voices out, and we could all share what we thought and believed, that that’s one of the keys to the world becoming better,” Cullen said.
She said it took her about eight months to create her Sullivan persona and presentation, and she tried it out for friends in her home before it premiered to the public in the winter of 2011.
For the past four years, before the advent of her book, she presented her one-woman show, “Annie Speaks” to schools, parent retreats, Lions Clubs, and Leader Dogs for the Blind meetings.
Cullen said “invisible hands” on the work have helped her as well, with friends and colleagues making her costume, giving feedback on historical accuracy, providing directorial help and other assistant along the way.
She said she has done about 20 performances a year for the past four years. Her audiences have ranged from kindergarten classes to people in foreign countries via computer, with her answering questions afterward.
While she likes to perform for children, she uses Sullivan as a facilitator for her presentation to adults.
“I did Annie for the parents of special needs children,” Cullen said. “Each parent, with this theme of finding the key, having a voice, they all got their own journals, with reflective questions, and they wrote about those questions, talking about their life being the parent of a special needs child.”
She said portraying Sullivan is an important, fulfilling part of her life.
“It is just the most wonderful thing in the world to do,” she said. “I’m an actor – I have been acting my whole life. I like to act. It is fun. Life stops when you are on stage.
“This is different. This is almost like, when you are up there, you just know there is going to be one or two people that latch on to what she has to say, because it is Annie’s narrative that is so intriguing.”
She said people know who Keller was, but they know less about Sullivan, an impoverished Irish immigrant who overcame tremendous odds to become an iconic educator.
“That’s the story people are listening to,” Cullen said. “When people listen to Annie they realize that we all have those people in our life, and we all are influenced by other people’s generosity of spirit to us.”
She said Sullivan is inspiring because when she found her voice, she used it on behalf of others.
Cullen said she taught sign language to a group of kindergarteners who were both native English speakers and “English as a Second Language” students.
“By the end of the thing, the most amazing thing happened,” Cullen said. “I taught them to sign ‘Happy Birthday,’ and here’s these two groups of children whose languages aren’t the same, and all of a sudden they have a universal language. That was just the coolest thing. We have a connection. We are all signing together.”