The story of Anne Sullivan as a child and as a young woman before her life was joined with Helen Keller has its own special interest.
- Birth--Anne Sullivan was born in April, 1866 in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts, a small village near Springfield, Massachusetts, to Irish immigrants who were very poor. This was a troubled family, because her father drank excessively and worked inconsistently, and her mother suffered from tuberculosis.
- Trachoma--Anne contracted trachoma, a disease of the eyes, when she was about 5. This disorder is not unusual where there is poor hygiene, and Anne's situation was not good. She was physically strong, but the disease was left untreated and she gradually lost her vision, although she was never totally blind.
- Shaping her character--The first 14 years of Anne Sullivan's life was the story of a young girl with a dream to escape an indescribable childhood of abandonment and loss. Her mother died while she was still a child. Because her father could not maintain a family, she lived with a series of relatives, and finally, just before her tenth birthday, she and her brother Jimmy were sent to the state "poorhouse" in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. This was a home for charity cases, and Anne roomed and boarded with the mentally ill, with prostitutes, and with people who could not maintain functioning lives in the society of that day. She fought for Jimmy and herself to be together, and they had beds next to each other, but Jimmy had a tubercular hip from birth and he died at Tewksbury, leaving her with no caring family. Despite these problems, Anne held to the dream that she would go to school. She had heard of schools for the blind.
- The committee--Her chance to go to school came when an investigating committee visited Tewksbury to inspect the institution. Heading the group was Mr. Frank B. Sanborn, Head of the Board of Charities. Anne followed them, and near the end of the tour, she threw herself at the mercy of Mr. Sanborn. She pleaded to be sent to a school for the blind. Soon thereafter, Anne learned she was to be sent to Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, unable to read, unable to see clearly, with a scarred childhood, but with her ambition to succeed.
- Perkins School--Perkins was a world-renowned institution for the blind. Anne's stay there was a process of softening--some would say taming--a highly intelligent young woman with a sharp questioning mind, but with an exceptionally strong will, a narrow point of view, and formative training from the school of hard and bitter experience. She started at the age of 14 at an elementary school level, but graduated at the age of 20 as class valedictorian. At first, she was mocked by her classmates for her lack of social skills, but over time she gained their respect through her perseverance and the strength of her personality.
- Rebellion--Anne was insecure about her background and excessively defensive toward ridicule, which she covered with rebelliousness. There were teachers who could not tolerate her quick mouth and ready challenge of authority, but a number of key teachers saw her potential and nourished her and shaped her.
....I know that gradually I began to accept things as they were, and rebel less and less. The realization came to me that I could not alter anything but myself. I must accept the conventional order of society if I were to succeed in anything. I must bend to the inevitable, and govern my life by experience, not by might-have-beens. --Anne Sullivan
- Valedictorian--At the age of 20 she delivered the valedictory address for the school graduation. This was a great moment of triumph. Shortly after this the director of the school, Michael Anagnos, learned of a deaf blind student in Alabama who needed a teacher. Anne Sullivan was offered the position and her life then became entwined with that of Helen Keller.
- Educational theorist--Anne Sullivan developed her own philosophy of teaching as she worked with Helen. She reasoned that a child learns to talk by imitation. As the child is spoken to--typically in sentences or phrases--the child repeats what is said and begins to work out by himself or herself the interconnections and structure of the language. Thus Annie began to give Helen complete, although simple, sentences. Helen, on her own began to understand the nuances of subject, action and object.
- Teacher--Anne Sullivan came to be known as a great American teacher. Her gift was her dedication. Anne literally gave her life and career to make Helen Keller great. But Helen, in return, also gave to Anne a sense of family, a stability she had never had.
The sign of a great teacher is that the accomplishments of her students exceed
More information about Anne Sullivan can be found at the Anne Sullivan online museum.