The Life of Helen Keller
Helen Keller was a child in darkness who discovered a new world through the eyes and ears of others. Quotes are from Helen and Teacher, by Joseph P. Lash, a definitive work on Helen Keller.
- Birth--She was born June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Her father, Captain Arthur H. Keller, had fought with the Confederate army at Vicksburg. He edited a news weekly and was periodically a US Marshall. Her mother was Captain Keller's second wife and had been raised in the social circles of Memphis. Both were consummate southerners.
- The dark comes--Helen was a bright and lively infant, but at the age of 19 months she had a fever which left her blind and deaf. There has never been a precise diagnosis for the type and cause of the fever. Helen had a distant memory of what light was like from her time before the fever came. Also, she had begun to make sounds before the fever and had remembered the word "wah-wah" for water. This was a foreshadowing, for water was to be the key to her world of language.
I cannot remember how I felt when the light went out of my eyes. I suppose I felt it was always night and perhaps I wondered why the day did not come.
- The coming of teacher--The Kellers sought advice and remedies for Helen. As she approached the age of 7, they visited Alexander Graham Bell in Washington D.C. because he was an activist in deaf education. Bell recommended the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston. A recent graduate of the school, Anne Sullivan, also known as Annie, was offered the position of tutor. In March, 1887, Annie arrived in Tuscumbia to live with the Kellers as governess.
- The wild thing--Helen had learned to communicate many of her wishes with various signs--there were some 60 gestures she had invented to ask for things or identify people. But she was otherwise frustrated in her attempts to communicate, and her frustration led to behavior problems. She would kick and fuss and demand her own way, even though there was a lovable streak in the child.
I saw clearly that it was useless to try to teach her language or anything else until she learned to obey me. I have thought about it a great deal, and the more I think, the more certain I am that obedience is the gateway through which knowledge, yes, and love, too, enter the mind of a child. --Anne Sullivan
- Obedience first--Annie became a live-in teacher. She immediately began to use finger spelling in Helen's hand to name objects. Helen quickly learned the finger-spell patterns but considered them a game and did not yet relate them to names for objects. She also did not accept her teacher's authority and continued with her wild ravings. For a time, Annie and Helen lived in a separate house away from the family, because of Annie's concerns about family interference in her attempts to create structure. Eventually, the behavior problems were brought under control, but Helen still did not understand words.
- Water--The communication breakthrough came with a trip to the well. Helen had been learning the finger spell patterns for W-A-T-E-R and M-U-G, but she still did not relate them to a liquid and its container. Later, when they were walking by the well house, Annie placed Helen's hand under the water coming from the pump and spelled W-A-T-E-R. Suddenly Helen had a realization. The cool liquid coming from the pump had a name. There were names for everything.
Helen got up this morning like a radiant fairy. She has flitted from object to object, asking the name of everything and kissing me for very gladness. Last night when I got into bed, she stole into my arms of her own accord and kissed me for the first time, and I thought my heart would burst, so full was it of joy.
- Learning words--By the summer of 1887, some four months after Annie arrived, and as Helen approached her seventh birthday, sheP had a vocabulary numbering hundreds of words, and was forming simple sentences. Much of her communication was by finger spelling, but she had also learned the shapes of letters.
- Learning to write--During the summer of 1887 she could print using block letters. To write she used a grooved writing board that was placed over a sheet of paper. Helen wrote the letters in the grooves, writing with a pencil and guiding the end of the pencil with the index finger of her left hand. She began to mail letters to her relatives. That same summer Helen also learned the Braille alphabet.
- Perkins School--In the spring of 1888, as Helen approached 8 years old she left Alabama with Annie to go to the Perkins School in Boston. This was the first of several trips to the school. Helen was exposed to a wonderful array of resources and her abilities increased. She learned quickly and had an exceptional memory for details. Her capacity for quick learning and retention gave her the name of "miracle" child.
- Learning foreign languages--It was during this summer that Helen learned about other languages such as Latin, French and German. She soon was peppering her writing with phrases from these languages.
- Learning to speak--In her ninth year , Helen Keller began to learn to speak. Her first speech teacher, Sarah Fuller, had her feel the shape of her mouth as she spoke, feeling inside the mouth to feel the position of the tongue. Helen then shaped the sounds on her own. First she learned to say letter sounds, then syllables. At first her speech was difficult to understand. She spent many years trying to perfect her speaking ability, even into adulthood.
- Reading lips--As she learned to speak, she also learned to read lips with her fingers. This was a brand new form of communication that Helen began to use immediately.
- Helen's character--Helen spent a life in helping others. She had boundless energy. Many noted her kindness, generosity and enthusiasm. She thought the best of people and typically brought out the best. She had numerous friends, and an endless communication with dignitaries around the world, but she never lost a sense of true empathy for the poor of the world--for the disabled.
- Letters, letters, letters--Helen was a tireless letter writer, even as a child. Her writing ability appeared to be a gift, and she used it extensively. A piece of paper was her main vehicle of communication to the world.
- Radcliffe Class of 1904--As Helen approached the end of her regular schooling, she began to think of college. Some said she shouldn't do it, but many schools wanted her to attend. She chose the one college in America who did not want her--Radcliffe. They thought she could not compete with "sighted" students, and this was tantamount to a challenge to Helen. She first passed her entry exams, and then with Anne Sullivan as a translator, attended regular classes. She graduated cum laude in 1904.
- Anne Sullivan Macy--During her college years Helen wrote The Story of my Life for the "Ladies Home Journal." John Albert Macy, a Harvard English instructor, was hired to help with the organization and editing. He worked closely with Helen and Anne, and in the years following this effort, he and Anne fell in love. Anne resisted because of her commitment to Helen and because John Macy was some 10 years younger, but with Helen's encouragement they were married on
May 2, 1905.
- Polly Thompson--In 1914, it was apparent that with Anne Sullivan's health failing, a new companion was needed for Helen. This was how Polly Thompson entered Helen's life. Polly was a young woman who had recently arrived from Scotland, and although she had no experience with the blind or deaf, she was hired to keep house. She was to become a life-long companion to Helen
- Love--A moment of love did come in Helen's life. In 1916, a young man named Peter Fagan had been hired to help while Anne Sullivan was ill and Polly was away. During a time when he and Helen were alone, he declared his love and told her she was beautiful. She had never been told she was beautiful and she fell for him. They agreed to keep their feelings secret for the moment, but eventually Helen's mother learned of the matter. A reporter had found an application for a marriage license by Peter and Helen in the city records. Helen's mother immediately took charge. She believed she saw flaws in the young man's character, and he was immediately relieved of his duties and sent away. Although there were a few follow-up letters between Helen and Peter (written in Braille), the romance died.
- Hollywood--In 1919, Helen starred in a movie (a silent movie) on her life. This was received well but was a failure financially. Helen had hoped to support herself from the profits, but it was not to be. However, the movie led to a vaudeville tour for four years in the early 1920s which was a financial success.
- The American Foundation for the Blind--In 1921, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) was organized. Helen was invited to be a spokesperson for the organization. She traveled extensively with Anne and Polly, giving speeches and raising funds for the blind and for related causes. Along with her many books and other writings, this was to become her life's work.
- Foreign travels--Beginning in 1930, Helen, Anne and Polly began a series of overseas trips. At first they went to the British Isles for summer vacations, but soon there were invitations from many places. In 1932 she received the honorary degree of Doctor of Laws from the University of Glascow. She met and visited the Queen at Buckingham Palace. There were visits to France, Yugoslavia, and Japan.
- The loss of Anne--However, throughout these years, Anne Sullivan Macy's health was failing. She lost her sight and there was an "internal disorder." In October, 1935, Helen's Teacher and her dearest friend died.
I wanted to be loved. I was lonesome--then Helen came into my life. I wanted her to love me and I loved her. Then later Polly came and I loved Polly and we were always so happy together--my Polly, my Helen...Thank God I gave up my life so that Helen might live. God help her to live without me when I go.
--Anne Sullivan, from her deathbed
- After Anne--After Anne, Helen's work for the AFB and other worthy causes continued for many years. During the second World War, she visited disabled soldiers. After the war she went to Germany, Africa, Latin America, India and other places. Between trips she stayed at "Arcan Ridge" her home that was named after a favorite place in Scotland. She wrote volumes, including a book about Anne Sullivan Macy. Polly Thompson continued as her companion until Polly's death in 1960.
All my life I have tried to avoid ruts, such as doing things my ancestors did before me, or leaning on the crutches of other people's opinion, or losing my childhood sense of wonderment. I am glad to say I still have a vivid curiosity about the world I live in....t is as natural for me to believe that the richest harvest of happiness comes with age as to believe that true sight and hearing are within, not without....
--Helen Keller, on being asked about growing older
- Retirement--In her later years, Helen Keller lived on into retirement. She often walked the grounds of "Arcan Ridge," and could be seen talking to herself with her fingers. Her fingers, her windows to the world, would flutter with unspoken remembrances of her long and wonderful life. She died in the afternoon of June 1, 1968, during a nap, and just before her 88th birthday.