Thursday 8 March 2012

Helen Keller (1880–968) and Anne Sullivan (1866–1936)

The story of Helen Keller is the story of a child who, at the age of 18 months, was suddenly shut off from the world, but who, against overwhelming odds, waged a slow, hard, but successful battle to reenter that same world. The inarticulate little deaf and blind girl grew into a highly intelligent and sensitive woman who wrote, spoke, and labored incessantly for the betterment of others.

Helen Adams Keller was born, physically whole and healthy, in Tuscumbia, Alabama on June 27, 1880. The illness that struck the infant Helen Keller and left her deaf and blind was diagnosed as brain fever at the time; perhaps it was scarlet fever. Popular belief had it that the disease left its victim an idiot. And as Helen Keller grew from infancy into childhood, wild, unruly, and with little real understanding of the world around her, this belief was seemingly confirmed.

Helen Keller's real life began on a March day in 1887 when she was a few months short of seven years old. On that day, which Miss Keller was always to call "The most important day I can remember in my life," Anne Mansfield Sullivan came to Tuscumbia to be her teacher. Miss Sullivan, a 20-year-old graduate of the Perkins School for the Blind, who had regained useful sight through a series of operations, had come to the Kellers through the sympathetic interest of Alexander Graham Bell. From that fateful day, the two--teacher and pupil--were inseparable until the death of the former in 1936.  

How Miss Sullivan turned the near savage child into a responsible human being and succeeded in awakening her marvelous mind is familiar to millions, most notably through William Gibson's play and film, The Miracle Worker, Miss Keller's autobiography of her early years, The Story of My Life, and Joseph Lash's Helen and Teacher.

Miss Sullivan began her task with a doll the children at Perkins had made for her to take to Helen. By spelling "d-o-l-l" into the child's hand, she hoped to teach her to connect objects with letters. Helen quickly learned to make the letters correctly, but did not know she was spelling a word, or that words existed. In the days that followed she learned to spell a great many more words in this uncomprehending way.
One day she and "Teacher"--as Helen always called her--went to the outdoor pump. Miss Sullivan started to draw water and put Helen's hand under the spout. As the cool water gushed over one hand, she spelled into the other the word "w-a-t-e-r" first slowly, then rapidly. Suddenly, the signals had meaning in Helen's mind. She knew that "water" meant the wonderful cool something flowing over her hand. Quickly, she stopped and touched the earth and demanded its letter name and by nightfall she had learned 30 words.

Thus began Helen Keller's education. She proceeded quickly to master the alphabet, both manual and in raised print for blind readers, and gained facility in reading and writing. In 1890, when she was just 10, she expressed a desire to learn to speak. Somehow she had found out that a little deaf-blind girl in Norway had acquired that ability. Miss Sarah Fuller of the Horace Mann School was her first speech teacher.

Even when she was a little girl, Helen Keller said, "Someday I shall go to college." And go to college she did. In 1898 she entered the Cambridge School for Young Ladies to prepare for Radcliffe College. She entered Radcliffe in the fall of 1900 and received her bachelor of arts degree cum laude in 1904. Throughout these years and until her own death in 1936, Anne Sullivan was always by Helen's side, laboriously spelling book after book and lecture after lecture, into her pupil's hand.

Helen Keller's formal schooling ended when she received her B.A. degree, but throughout her life she continued to study and stayed informed on all matters of importance to modern people. In recognition of her wide knowledge and many scholarly achievements, she received honorary doctoral degrees from Temple University and Harvard University and from the Universities of Glasgow, Scotland; Berlin, Germany; Delhi, India; and Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. She was also an Honorary Fellow of the Educational Institute of Scotland.

Anne Sullivan's marriage, in 1905, to John Macy, an eminent critic and prominent socialist, caused no change in the teacher-pupil relationship. Helen went to live with the Macys and both husband and wife unstintingly gave their time to help her with her studies and other activities.

While still a student at Radcliffe, Helen Keller began a writing career that was to continue on and off for 50 years. In 1902, The Story of My Life, which had first appeared in serial form in the Ladies Home Journal, appeared in book form. This was always to be the most popular of her works and today is available in more than 50 languages, including Marathi, Pushtu, Tagalog, and Vedu. It is also available in several paperback editions in this country.

Miss Keller's other published works include Optimism, an essay; The World I Live In; The Song of the Stone Wall; Out of the Dark; My Religion; Midstream--My Later Life; Peace at Eventide; Helen Keller in Scotland; Helen Keller's Journal; Let Us Have Faith; Teacher, Anne Sullivan Macy; and The Open Door. In addition, she was a frequent contributor to magazines and newspapers, writing most frequently on blindness, deafness, socialism, social issues, and women's rights. She used a braille typewriter to prepare her manuscripts and then copied them on a regular typewriter.

More rewarding to her than the many honors she received, were the acquaintances and friendships Helen Keller made with most of the leading personalities of her time. There were few world figures, from Grover Cleveland to Charlie Chaplin, Nehru, and John F. Kennedy, whom she did not meet. And many, among them Katharine Cornell, Van Wyck Brooks, Alexander Graham Bell, and Jo Davidson, she counted as friends. Two friends from her early youth, Mark Twain and William James, expressed beautifully what most of her friends felt about her. Mark Twain said, "The two most interesting characters of the 19th century are Napoleon and Helen Keller." William James wrote, "But whatever you were or are, you're a blessing!"

As broad and wide ranging as her interests were, Helen Keller never lost sight of the needs of her fellow blind and deaf-blind. From her youth, she was always willing to help them by appearing before legislatures, giving lectures, writing articles, and above all, by her own example of what a severely handicapped person could accomplish. When the American Foundation for the Blind, the national clearinghouse for information on blindness, was established in 1921, she at last had an effective national outlet for her efforts. From 1924 until her death she was a member of the Foundation staff, serving as counselor on national and international relations. It was also in 1924 that Miss Keller began her campaign to raise the "Helen Keller Endowment Fund" for the Foundation. Until her retirement from public life, she was tireless in her efforts to make the Fund adequate for the Foundation's needs.

Of all her contributions to the Foundation, Miss Keller was perhaps most proud of her assistance in the formation in 1946 of its special service for deaf-blind persons. She was, of course, deeply concerned for this group of people and was always searching for ways to help those "less fortunate than myself."

Helen Keller was as interested in the welfare of blind persons in other countries as she was for those in her own country; conditions in the underdeveloped and war-ravaged nations were of particular concern. Her active participation in this area of work for the blind began as early as 1915 when the Permanent Blind War Relief Fund, later called the American Braille Press, was founded. She was a member of its first board of directors.

When the American Braille Press became the American Foundation for Overseas Blind (now Helen Keller International) in 1946, Miss Keller was appointed counselor on international relations. It was then that she began the globe-circling tours on behalf of the blind for which she was so well known during her later years. During seven trips between 1946 and 1957 she visited 35 countries on five continents. In 1955, when she was 75 years old, she embarked on one of her longest and most grueling journeys, a 40,000-mile, five-month-long tour through Asia. Wherever she traveled, she brought new courage to millions of blind people, and many of the efforts to improve conditions among the blind abroad can be traced directly to her visits.

After 1961, Helen Keller lived quietly at Arcan Ridge. She saw her family, close friends, and associates from the American Foundation for the Blind and the American Foundation for Overseas Blind, and spent much time reading. Her favorite books were the Bible and volumes of poetry and philosophy.

Helen Keller died on June 1, 1968, at Arcan Ridge, a few weeks short of her 88th birthday. Her ashes were placed next to her beloved companions, Anne Sullivan Macy and Polly Thomson, in the St. Joseph's Chapel of Washington Cathedral.

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