Blind and deaf Helen Keller was wild and unteachable until Anne Sullivan found a way.
The seminal moment when teacher Anne Sullivan broke through to Helen Keller, her blind and deaf student, was a private one, though millions have seen it re-enacted in stage and screen versions of “The Miracle Worker.”
It was 1895 and Keller, an almost feral Alabama child, was about 7 years old. For weeks, Sullivan had been spelling words into Keller’s small hand, silently urging her to make the connection between the letters her fingers formed and the object her pupil was touching. One day, standing by the outdoor water pump, Keller made the connection between the wet, flowing liquid and the patterns being pressed into her hand. She joyfully splashed the water into the air, knowing her life had forever changed.
Keller later referred to that day as “my soul’s birthday.” Over the next 49 years, with Sullivan by her side and serving as her ears, Keller achieved fame as a writer, activist and humanitarian. Together they changed many misconceptions about people with disabilities.
“My teacher is so near to me that I scarcely think of myself apart from her. How much of my delight in all beautiful things is innate, and how much is due to her influence, I can never tell,” Keller wrote in her autobiography, “The Story of My Life.” “I feel that her being is inseparable from my own, and that the footsteps of my life are in hers. All the best of me belongs to her — there is not a talent, or an aspiration, or a joy in me that has not been awakened by her loving touch.”
Sullivan, who was born April 14, 1877, may have seemed an unlikely teacher. Her parents were illiterate Irish immigrants. Her mother died when she was a child and her father abandoned the family. Sullivan and one of her younger siblings were sent to live in a state-run charity home, where the brother later died.
A childhood illness had left Sullivan blind. Like Keller, she acted out in frustration. At 14, she entered the Perkins School for the Blind in Watertown, Massachusetts, unable to read or write.
“Anne Sullivan learned to excel academically at Perkins but she did not conform,” the Perkins website says. “She frequently broke rules; her quick temper and sharp tongue brought her close to expulsion on more than one occasion.”
Sullivan underwent surgery that partially restored her sight and eventually graduated as valedictorian, telling her classmates in her speech, “Fellow-graduates: Duty bids us go forth into active life. Let us go cheerfully, hopefully and earnestly, and set ourselves to find our especial part. When we have found it, willingly and faithfully perform it.”
A short time later, Sullivan was hired to teach Keller. She began by spelling words into Keller’s hands, using the teaching model that had worked for Laura Bridgman, “the first person who was deafblind to learn language,” according to the Perkins website.
But what had worked for Bridgman was not getting through to Keller. So Sullivan decided to enter Helen’s world, following her interests and adding language and vocabulary to those activities. “Remarkably, within six months she learned 575 words, multiplication tables as high as five and the Braille system,” the Perkins website said.
In 1890, Keller was accepted to Radcliffe College. Sullivan went to every class with her, spelling into her hand. “When Helen received her Bachelor of Arts degree, it was a triumph for both women,” according to the website for the American Foundation for the Blind.
“My own life is so interwoven with my Helen’s life that I can’t separate myself from her,” Sullivan is quoted as saying in her New York Times obituary.
The phrase “miracle worker” comes from a postcard Mark Twain gave to Sullivan in which he wrote that he held Sullivan “with warm regard & with limitless admiration of the wonders she has performed as a miracle-worker.”
Sullivan died Oct. 20, 1936, at age 70 with Keller holding her hand. Keller told The New York Times. “Teacher is set free at last from pain and blindness. I pray for strength to endure the silent dark until she smiles on me again.”
Keller died in 1968. Her ashes are alongside Sullivan’s in Washington’s National Cathedral.
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she’s now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, “Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone’s world that we’re often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we’re alive.”