Helen Keller (1880-1968) has one of the most extraordinary, amazing, and unique life stories in all of history. Despite being both blind and deaf, she learned to communicate with great effectiveness, and also wrote numerous books and articles.
Helen was born in 1880, and at the age of just 19 months, she became blind, deaf and mute due to an illness (probably scarlet fever). As a child, Helen displayed many signs of frustration as she struggled to communicate.
Many years later in her 1905 autobiography The Story of My Life, Helen wrote:
I do not remember when I first realized that I was different from other people; but I knew it before my teacher came to me. I had noticed that my mother and my friends did not use signs as I did when they wanted anything done, but talked with their mouths. Sometimes I stood between two persons who were conversing and touched their lips. I could not understand, and was vexed. I moved my lips and gesticulated frantically without result. This made me so angry at times that I kicked and screamed until I was exhausted.
Meanwhile the desire to express myself grew. The few signs I used became less and less adequate, and my failures to make myself understood were invariably followed by outbursts of passion. I felt as if invisible hands were holding me, and I made frantic efforts to free myself. I struggled—not that struggling helped matters, but the spirit of resistance was strong within me; I generally broke down in tears and physical exhaustion. If my mother happened to be near I crept into her arms, too miserable even to remember the cause of the tempest. After awhile the need of some means of communication became so urgent that these outbursts occurred daily, sometimes hourly.
At the age of six, Helen was examined by Alexander Graham Bell (the man who invented the telephone in 1876, and who also was an expert on teaching various skills to the deaf), and he sent her to a teacher at the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston named Anne Sullivan.
The relationship between Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan, as teacher-pupil and also as friends, continued all the way until Sullivan’s death in 1936.
Under Sullivan’s tutelage, Helen quickly made great progress. Within months, she could make associations between objects that she touched and words that were spelled out with finger signals on her palm.
Years later in her 1905 autobiography The Story of My Life, Helen wrote:
The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me. I am filled with wonder when I consider the immeasurable contrasts between the two lives which it connects. It was the third of March, 1887, three months before I was seven years old.
On the afternoon of that eventful day… I guessed vaguely from my mother’s signs and from the hurrying to and fro in the house that something unusual was about to happen, so I went to the door and waited on the steps…
I felt approaching footsteps. I stretched out my hand as I supposed to my mother. Some one took it, and I was caught up and held close in the arms of her who had come to reveal all things to me, and, more than all things else, to love me.
The morning after my teacher came she led me into her room and gave me a doll… When I had played with it a little while, Miss Sullivan slowly spelled into my hand the word “d-o-l-l.” I was at once interested in this finger play and tried to imitate it. When I finally succeeded in making the letters correctly I was flushed with childish pleasure and pride. Running downstairs to my mother I held up my hand and made the letters for doll. I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed; I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation. In the days that followed I learned to spell in this uncomprehending way a great many words, among them pin, hat, cup and a few verbs like sit, stand and walk. But my teacher had been with me several weeks before I understood that everything has a name.
One day, while I was playing with my new doll, Miss Sullivan put my big rag doll into my lap also, spelled “d-o-l-l” and tried to make me understand that “d-o-l-l” applied to both. Earlier in the day we had had a tussle over the words “m-u-g” and “w-a-t-e-r.” Miss Sullivan had tried to impress it upon me that “m-u-g” is mug and that “w-a-t-e-r” is water, but I persisted in confounding the two. In despair she had dropped the subject for the time, only to renew it at the first opportunity. I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor. I was keenly delighted when I felt the fragments of the broken doll at my feet. Neither sorrow nor regret followed my passionate outburst. I had not loved the doll. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness. I felt my teacher sweep the fragments to one side of the hearth, and I had a sense of satisfaction that the cause of my discomfort was removed. She brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the warm sunshine. This thought, if a wordless sensation may be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure.
We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand…
I left the well-house eager to learn… I learned a great many new words that day… It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib at the close of that eventful day and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come.
Helen began learning to converse by finger signal. She also exploring nature and the world with Anne Sullivan, and also learned subjects such as math and science. She later began learning Braille.
Her teacher Sullivan incorporated a wide variety of lessons in a diverse learning experience for Helen.
In her 1905 autobiography The Story of My Life, Helen wrote:
For a long time I had no regular lessons. Even when I studied most earnestly it seemed more like play than work.
…I learned from life itself. At the beginning I was only a little mass of possibilities. It was my teacher [Anne Sullivan] who unfolded and developed them. When she came, everything about me breathed of love and joy and was full of meaning. She has never since let pass an opportunity to point out the beauty that is in everything, nor has she ceased trying in thought and action and example to make my life sweet and useful.
It was my teacher’s genius, her quick sympathy, her loving tact which made the first years of my education so beautiful. It was because she seized the right moment to impart knowledge that made it so pleasant and acceptable to me.
Helen was later sent to a teacher named Sarah Fuller at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Boston, where Helen slowly learned to speak. She also learned lip-reading by putting her fingers on someone’s lips and throat. At that time, such skills were considered totally revolutionary for a person with senses as limited as Helen’s.
By age 14, Helen began attending a school for the Deaf in New York City, and at age 16, she went to the Cambridge School for Young Ladies in Massachusetts. At age 20, she earned admission to Radcliffe College, and she graduated four years later.
Throughout her life, Helen wrote extensively about blindness and deafness in many major magazines. She also wrote many books and essays about her experiences and various other subjects, including The Story of My Life (1902), Optimism (1903), The World I Live In (1908), The Song of the Stone Wall (1910), Out of the Dark (1913), My Religion (1929), Midstream: My Later Life (1930), Journal (1938), Let Us Have Faith (1940), Teacher (1955, about Anne Sullivan), and The Open Door (1957)
Helen also gave many lectures with the help of an interpreter, most of which were for the American Foundation for the Blind. Her writing and lecturing had an enormous impact on improving treatment and resources for the deaf and the blind
In 1959, Helen’s childhood training experiences with Anne Sullivan were made into a Pulitzer Prize winning play called The Miracle Worker, and in 1962, that play was made into an acclaimed film.
We can do anything we want to do if we stick to it long enough.
I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and [just] because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.
The highest result of education is tolerance.
Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it.
Many people have the wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.
Your success and happiness lies in you. Resolve to keep happy, and your joy and you shall form an invincible host against difficulties.
Smell is a potent wizard that transports us across thousands of miles and all the years we have lived
Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourse of my book-friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness.
It is not possible for civilization to flow backwards while there is youth in the world. Youth may be headstrong, but it will advance its allotted length.
The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched. They must be felt with the heart.