I have recently read Helen Keller’s book, “The Story of My Life”, written by her in 1967. The challenge of being without both gifts of seeing and hearing just boggles my mind. I read once that it is a good exercise to limit ourselves sometimes just to learn to appreciate those things we have more. Penny wanted to try it herself, so you will see her blindfolded in some of the following pictures as she tries to experience things from Helen Keller’s view.
Helen Keller was born on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, in northern Alabama. She lost her sight and hearing after an illness when she was 19 months old. Her parents were so thankful that she recovered from the dangerous fever, but what a shock to slowly discover that she could no longer see or hear.
In her book Helen describes her home then as being a little rose-bower. I love this: “It was completely covered with vines, climbing roses, and honeysuckles. From the garden it looked like an arbor. The little porch was hidden from view by a screen of yellow roses and southern smilax. It was the favorite haunt of hummingbirds and bees… Its old-fashioned garden was the paradise of my childhood…guided by the sense of smell, I would find the first violets and lilies.” Imagine sniffing out those violets in the picture above without the help of your eyes.
As Helen grew, so did her frustration at not being able to express herself. Then in March of 1887, Anne Sullivan came to help 6 year old Helen. Imagine not even knowing that things had names. Anne taught Helen the manual alphabet, and her understanding began to form when she learned that a certain series of hand signals meant “water”, that cool something pouring over her hand at the pump. This excited Helen and she began to ask the signs for everything she could reach.
Miss Sullivan was a life saver for Helen’s family that simply did not know what to do with their child. Helen was very spoiled and ill-mannered. She was allowed to do as she pleased and displayed a nasty temper. But with the help of her teacher, Helen learned how to control herself and to communicate through signs.
“I recall many incidents of the summer of 1887 that followed my soul’s sudden awakening. I did nothing but explore with my hands and learn the name of every object that I touched; and the more I handled things and learned their names and uses, the more joyous and confident grew my sense of kinship with the rest of the world.”
Her lessons were out of doors, learning all about the delights of the world she lived in and the marvels of nature. “Miss Sullivan taught me to find beauty in the fragrant woods, in every blade of grass, and in the curves and dimples of my baby sister’s hand.”
“Indeed, everything that could hum, or buzz, or sing, or bloom had a part in my education.”
“At the beginning, I was only a little mass of possibilities. It was my teacher who unfolded and developed them… she has not ceased trying in thought and action and example to make my life sweet and useful.”
One Christmas, Miss Sullivan presented Helen with a canary. “Little Tim was so tame that he would hop on my finger and eat candied cherries out of my hand. Miss Sullivan taught me to take all the care of my new pet. … One morning I left the cage on the window seat while I went to fetch water for his bath. When I returned I felt a big cat brush past me as I opened the door. At first I did not realize what had happened; but when I put my hand in the cage and Tim’s pretty wings did not meet my touch… I knew that I should never see my sweet little singer again.”
As Helen’s knowledge and understanding grew, she began to ask questions. Lots of questions. Miss Sullivan was then working to explain to her abstract ideas like love, and how to join in a conversation with others. In 1890 Helen began to learn to speak!
Helen was so thirsty for knowledge, she learned to read the raised print of braille, and devoured many books. She set out to teach herself to read in French. Later in Latin, and also in German. I was so amazed at how she grew and expanded her skills! She attended a school for the deaf. Then she set her sights on regular school and college too! Anne Sullivan helped her every step of the way, reading many textbooks into her hand manually.
One challenge was exams, which Helen would type out on a typewriter, but there was usually no time to go back and have someone reread it so she could correct what she had written. Just one of the many challenges of not being able to see.
She reveled in all the learning, but regretted one thing: “The one I felt and still feel most is lack of time. I used to have time to think, to reflect, my mind and I … in college there is no time to commune with one’s thoughts… one leaves the dearest pleasures – solitude, books, and imagination outside with the whispering pines.”
I was interested to read of her visiting Niagara Falls, not far from where I live. She said, “It is difficult to describe my emotions when I stood on the point which overhangs the American Falls and felt the air vibrate and the earth tremble.” People were amazed that she should be impressed by such wonders that she could not even see “They forget that my whole body is alive to the conditions about me, the rumble and roar…”
The book, “The Story of My Life” was written in Helen’s college days. So I have not read further about her life yet. But I have found another book, and there I hope to meet Polly and find out more of the amazing life of this gifted woman. She learned to make the best of what she had been given, though it was not the same lot as the rest of us.
Meanwhile, I am giving thanks that I have been granted the gift of sight! What a treat to get this great picture of a bluebird in my own backyard.