Anne Sullivan's Influence on Helen Keller … Case Study
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Helen Keller: Life and Challenges
Born a normal, healthy child in Tuscumbia, Alabama, in 1880, Helen Keller was struck by an illness when she was just nineteen months old. It left her deaf and blind, which would be a terrible shock to any baby and its family, and it certainly was for Helen Keller. This paper details how she emerged from the darkness and lack of hearing to become a political activist, noted author, world traveler, and a role model for other sightless people.
Keller's Life - A Quick Review
Imagine a baby losing hearing and sight at a very young age, but battling through depression and the many challenges in her way -- that is a thumbnail sketch of Keller. In the book The Story of My Life: The Restored Edition, readers get a very good idea of her accomplishments and world travels. Author John Albert Macy introduced Keller's book (Editor's Preface), and provides some important biographical background on Keller, who died in 1968.
Things certainly didn't come easily for this deaf and blind person growing up in the South in the 19th century, but as this paper will point out, Keller had a wonderful mentor / tutor and friend in Annie Sullivan, who brought out the best talent and skills in Keller. As Macy writes that, "Her life became legend. Deaf and blind, she had learned language…so well that she graduated cum laude…" with a Bachelor's Degree in English from Radcliffe (Macy, 2004). She went on to write fourteen books, and once she found her footing (thanks in large part to the contribution of Sullivan), she became "…extraordinarily happy, kind, and generous, a being on the boundary of divinity" (Macy).
There were many important and prestigious Americans who came into contact with Keller and gave praise for the kind of person she became. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) called her "the most remarkable woman since Joan of Arc; Alexander Graham Bell said he saw in Keller "…more of the divine than has been manifest in anyone I ever met before" (Macy). Ironically, Keller's remarkable ability to learn languages earned her praise on the one hand and criticism on the other hand. She was, as Macy describes, seen as "fraudulent" and as a "plagiarist" -- a person who used the words of others. "Her own experience and her own world were neglected… It is a birthright sold for a mass of verbiage," commented blind psychologist Thomas Cutsworth (Macy, xxii).
Annie Sullivan's Influence
"Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world…I had neither will not intellect," Keller wrote (Einhorn, 1998). She called herself a "phantom," and in Lois Einhorn's book, Hellen Keller, Public Speaker: Sightless But Seen, Deaf But Heard, the author quotes Keller as she described her sense of desperation and isolation prior to Annie Sullivan's arrival into her life:
"Ours is not the stillness which soothes the weary senses; it is an inhuman silence where severs and estranges. It is a silence not to be broken by a word of greeting, or the song of birds, or the sigh of a breeze. It is a silence which isolates, cruelly, completely" (Einhorn, 11).
That silence was broken however when Keller's life took a very positive turn on March 3, 1887; that was when Sullivan arrived just prior to Keller's seventh birthday. The first thing Sullivan did for Keller was to have Keller use the manual alphabet and spell words into Sullivan's hand. Soon, Keller was spelling many words but Einhorn said that Keller "…had no idea that she was communicating. To her the spelling was at first a game and language was something she still was oblivious to. But one month into Sullivan's arrival Keller stood by the family's water well and "…for the first time she understood that words were names that represented objects" (Einhorn, 12). Keller's education continued with the goal of learning to speak, which she did when she attended Horace Mann School in Boston, learning under the tutelage of Miss Sarah Fuller. Her first words were stammered, but they came out: "It is warm" (Einhorn, 14).
Keller was ebullient to be learning to identify things with names, and her joy was shown through her narrative in The Story of My Life. She and Sullivan "…spent many happy hours and played at learning geography. I built dams of pebbles, made islands and lakes, and dug riverbeds, all for fun, and never dreamed that I was learning a lesson" (Keller, 31). When Sullivan was teaching Keller about geography, she made "raised maps in clay, so that I could feel the mountain ridges and valleys, and follow with my fingers the devious course of rivers" (Keller, 31).
Her narrative is full of enthusiastic wonderment at all the discoveries there were to be made, once Sullivan have arrived in her life. She said she learned from Sullivan, but also, "I learned from life itself. At the beginning I was only a little mass of possibilities. It was my teacher who unfolded and developed them…it was my teacher's genius, her quick sympathy, her loving tact which made the first years of my education so beautiful" (Keller, 33). Always fond of metaphors, Keller wrote that a child's mind is like "…a shallow brook which ripples and dances merrily over the stony course of its education" -- but it took someone like Sullivan to make it real for Keller. When she arrived at the Perkins Institution for the Blind, another world opened up for her -- knowing other blind young people, and learning to read books with fingers (Keller, 37).
Keller Becomes Politically Progressive
Twenty-one-year-old Annie Sullivan was from the East Coast, a long way from Alabama politically and socially, and because of Keller's disability, and the close association with Sullivan that resulted from the disability, this bonding with a progressive person offered Keller perfect opportunities to question racial bigotry. In time, Sullivan opened the door to Keller's understanding of the world from a liberal perspective, and it shaped what Keller wrote and what movements she chose to participate in. Keller's father, Captain Arthur Keller, and her mother, Kate, thought about putting Helen into an educational institution for the blind but resisted for a time because "…of the linkage between educational reformers and abolitionism" (Nielsen, 2007). In time, though, they brought Sullivan into the home to help their daughter, not realizing that Sullivan's progressive views were an anathema to southern views on race. Sullivan had great admiration for "…several sworn enemies of slavery and the Confederacy" Nielson writes that Sullivan "hesitated to even accept employment" with the Keller family for fear that the family "…had once owned slaves" (788). Indeed, Sullivan was shocked to arrive in a segregated town but her devotion to Helen kept her on task, in focus.
Covering certain passages from Helen Keller's books gives an alert reader a window into the brilliance of Keller's narrative. Justin Leiber quotes Keller in his scholarly piece, asserting that Keller was a "cognitive scientist" (Leiber, 1996). Explaining the difference between sighted people and those who count on Braille to research and learn, Keller wrote: "My hand is to me what your hearing and sight together are to you. In large measure we travel the same highways, read the same books, speak the same language, yet our experiences are different. All my comings and goings turn on the hand as a pivot. It is the hand that binds me to the world of men and women" (Leiber).
Indeed, although in hindsight Helen Keller was a brilliant thinker, speaker and writer, her development was anything but normal. Her cognitive growth was stymied for several years because of her blindness and inability to hear. She was known as a "wild child"; according to her own recounting, "I lived in a world that was a no-world…I had neither will not intellect." A normal child would be in pre-school or at least kindergarten, learning words, concepts, beginning to read. A normal child's parents would see to it that she has access to education. In Keller's case, her parents were so biased against abolitionists -- and so much under the grip of Southern segregation -- that they resisted what they should have been doing with their child, especially with a disabled child, long before Annie Sullivan arrived. Everything about the first years of Helen Keller's live was the antithesis of how a modern family would handle a child with those severe disabilities. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, but the fact is the best decision the Keller family made was to hire Annie Sullivan, albeit Sullivan would shape Helen's worldview in a way that would be quite in conflict with segregation and bigotry against people of color.
Einhorn, L.J. (1998). Helen Keller, Public Speaker: Sightless But Seen, Deaf But Heard.
Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Publishing Group.
Keller, H., and Macy, J.A. (2004). The Story of My Life: The Restored Edition. New York
City: Modern Library.… [END OF PREVIEW]
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