The Life and Times of Helen Keller
HELEN KELLER AT HOME.By kind permission of her teacher, Miss Sullivan, I was granted the privilege of an interview with Miss Keller at her residence on Newbury street, Boston, where she was busily at work preparing for the entrance examinations to Radcliffe College.
After a cordial greeting, Miss Sullivan, whose gracious, kindly manner makes the visitor feel perfectly at home, introduced me to her pupil. Seated on a low rocking-chair, in a large, sunny bay-window, the young girl, fresh as the morning, in her dainty pink shirt-waist over a dress of plain, dark material, with the sunshine glinting through her waving brown hair, and kissing her broad white forehead and pink cheeks, made a picture which one will not willingly forget. On her lap was a small red cushion, to which wires, representing the geometrical figures included in the problem on which she was engaged, were fastened. Laying this aside at a touch from Miss Sullivan, she arose, and, stretching out her hand, pronounced my name softly, with a peculiar intonation, which at first makes it a little difficult to understand her words, but to which the listener soon becomes accustomed. Of course, her teacher acted as an interpreter during our conversation, though much of what Helen says is perfectly intelligible even to the untrained ear.
“Yes,” she said, “it is a very difficult problem, but I have a little light on it now.”
HER AMBITION.“What will your ambition be when your college course is completed?” I asked.
“I think I should like to write,—for children. I tell stories to my little friends a great deal of the time now, but they are not original,—not yet. Most of them are translations from the Greek, and I think no one can write anything prettier for the young. Charles Kingsley has written some equally good things, like ‘Water Babies,’ for instance. ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is a fine story, too, but none of them can surpass the Greek tales.”
Many of our advanced thinkers are fond of advancing the theory that the medium of communication in the future will not be spoken words, but the more subtle and genuine, if mute, language of the face, the eyes, the whole body. Sarah Bernhardt forcibly illustrates the effectiveness of this method, for even those who do not understand a word of French derive nearly as much pleasure from the great actress’s performances as those who are thoroughly familiar with the language. Helen Keller’s dramatic power of expression is equally telling.
She is enthusiastic in her admiration of everything Greek. The language, the literature, the arts, the history of the classic land fascinate and enthrall her imagination.
“Oh, yes,” she exclaimed, eagerly, in answer to my query if she expected to go to Greece sometime, “it is one of my air castles. Ever since I was as tall as that,” (she held her hand a short distance from the floor) “I have dreamed about it.”
“Do you believe the dream will some day become a reality?”
“I hope so, but I dare not be too sure,”—and the sober words of wisdom that followed sounded oddly enough on the girlish lips,—“the world is full of disappointments and vicissitudes, and I have to be a little conservative.”
“Which of your studies interest you most?”
“Latin and Greek. I am reading now Virgil’s ‘Eclogues,’ Cicero’s ‘Orations,’ Homer’s ‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey,’” she said, and ran rapidly over a list of classic books which she likes.
Her readiness to perceive a joke and her quickness to detect the least carelessness in language are distinguishing traits, which she illustrated even during our brief conversation. Commenting on her love of everything pertaining to Greece, I remarked that a believer in the doctrine of metempsychosis might imagine that she possessed the soul of an old Greek. Instantly she noticed the little slip, and, laughing gayly, cried: “Oh, no, not the soul of an old Greek, the soul of a young Greek.”
Helen’s merriment was infectious, and we all joined heartily in the laugh, Miss Sullivan saying, “She caught you there,” as I was endeavoring to explain that, of course, I meant the soul of an ancient Greek.
While taking so deep an interest in matters intellectual, and living in a world of her own, penetrated by no outward sight or sound, Miss Keller’s tastes are as normal as those of any girl of nineteen. She is full of animal spirit, dearly loves a practical joke, is fond of dancing, enjoys outside exercise and sport, and has the natural desire of every healthy young maiden to wear pretty things and look her best.
In answer to a question on this latter subject, she said:—
“I used to be very fond of dress, but now I am not particularly so; it is such a bother. We ought to like dress, though, and wear pretty things, just as the flowers put on beautiful colors. It would be fine,” she continued, laughing gleefully, “if we were made with feathers and wings, like the birds. Then we would have no trouble about dress, and we could fly where we pleased.”
“You would fly to Greece, first, I suppose?”
“No,” she replied, and her laughing face took on a tender, wistful look, “I should go home first, to see my loved ones.”
HEREDITY AND CHILDHOOD.Miss Keller’s home is at Tuscumbia, Alabama, where she was born on June 27, 1880. Some of the best blood of both the north and the south flows in her veins, and it is probable that her uncommon mental powers are in no small degree due to heredity. Her father, Arthur H. Keller, a polished southern gentleman, with a large, chivalrous nature, fine intelligence and attractive manners, was the descendant of a family of Swiss origin, which had settled in Virginia and mixed with some of the oldest families in that state. He served as a captain in the Confederate army during the Civil War, and, at the time of Helen’s birth, was the owner and editor of a paper published at Tuscumbia. On the maternal side she is descended from one of the Adams families of Massachusetts, and the same stock of Everetts from which Edward Everett and Reverend Edward Everett Hale sprang.
Helen Keller was not born deaf and blind, although, at the age of eighteen months, when a violent fit of convulsions deprived her of the faculties of seeing and hearing, she had not attempted to speak. When a child, she was as notable for her stubbornness and resistance to authority as she is to-day for her gentleness and amiability. Indeed, it was owing to an exhibition of what seemed a very mischievous spirit that her parents sought a special instructor for her. Having discovered the use of a key, she locked her mother into a pantry in a distant part of the house, where, her hammering on the door not being heard by the servants, she remained imprisoned for several hours. Helen, seated on the floor outside, felt the knocking on the door, and seemed to be enjoying the situation intensely when at length jailer and prisoner were found. She was then about six years old, and, after this escapade, Mr. and Mrs. Keller felt that the child’s moral nature must be reached and her mental powers cultivated, if possible.
HELEN’S FIRST TEACHER.On the recommendation of Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, Michael Anagnos, director of the Perkins Institute for the Blind at South Boston, sent Miss Annie Mansfield Sullivan to Tuscumbia to undertake the difficult task of piercing the veil behind which the intelligence of the little girl lay sleeping. How well this noble and devoted teacher has succeeded in her work is amply evidenced by the brilliancy and thoroughness of her pupil’s attainments.
Miss Sullivan’s method of instruction was similar to that adopted by Dr. Samuel G. Howe in teaching Laura Bridgman. She used the manual alphabet, and cards bearing, in raised letters, the names of objects. At first, the pupil violently resisted the teacher’s efforts to instruct her, and so determined was her opposition, Miss Sullivan declares, that, if she had not exercised physical force and a determination even more strenuous than that of her refractory pupil, she would never have succeeded in teaching her anything. Night and day she was at her side, watching for the first gleam of conscious mind; and at length, after seven weeks of what she says was the hardest work she had ever done, the faithful teacher received her reward in the sudden dawning of the child’s intelligence. All at once, the light seemed to burst in upon her wondering soul; she understood then that the raised letters which she felt on the cards and the groups of manual signs on her hands, represented words, or the names of familiar objects. The delight of the pupil and teacher was unbounded, and from that moment Helen’s education, though still demanding the greatest patience and loving care on the part of her teacher, was a comparatively easy matter.
With the awakening of her intellectual faculties, she seemed literally to have been “born again.” The stubborn, headstrong, self-willed, almost unmanageable child became patient, gentle and obedient; and, instead of resisting instruction, her eagerness to learn was so great that it had to be restrained. So rapid was her progress that, in a few weeks, anyone who knew the manual alphabet could easily communicate with her, and in July, 1887, less than a year from the time Miss Sullivan first saw her, she could write an intelligent letter.
PREPARING FOR COLLEGE.In September, 1896, accompanied by her teacher, Miss Keller entered the Cambridge School for Girls, to prepare for Radcliffe College, and in June, 1897, passed the examinations of the first preparatory year successfully in every subject, taking “honors” in English and German. The director of the school, Arthur Gilman, in an article in “American Annals of the Deaf,” says: “I think that I may say that no candidate in Harvard or Radcliffe College was graduated higher than Helen in English. The result is remarkable, especially when we consider that she had been studying on strictly college preparatory lines for one year only. She had, it is true, long and careful instruction, and she has had always the loving ministration of Miss Sullivan, in addition to the inestimable advantage of a concentration that the rest of us never know. No other, man or woman,” he adds, “has ever, in my experience, got ready for those examinations in so brief a time.”
Mr. Gilman, in the same article, pays the following well-deserved tribute to Miss Sullivan, whose work is as worthy of admiration as that of her pupil:—
“Miss Sullivan sat at Helen’s side in the classes (in the Cambridge School), interpreting to her, with infinite patience, the instruction of every teacher. In study hours, Miss Sullivan’s labors were even more arduous, for she was obliged to read everything that Helen had to learn, excepting what was prepared in Braille; she searched the lexicons and encyclopedias, and gave Helen the benefit of it all. When Helen went home, Miss Sullivan went with her, and it was hers to satisfy the busy,
unintermitting demands of the intensely active brain; for, although others gladly helped, there were many matters which could be treated only by the one teacher who had awakened the activity and had followed its development from the first. Now, it was a German grammar which had to be read, now a French story, and then some passage from ‘Cæsar’s Commentaries.’ It looked like drudgery, and drudgery it would certainly have been had not love shed its benign influence over all, lightening each step and turning hardship into pleasure.”
Miss Keller is very patriotic, but large and liberal in her ideas, which soar far beyond all narrow, partisan or political prejudices. Her sympathies are with the masses, the burden-bearers, and, like all friends of the people and of universal progress, she was intensely interested in the Peace Congress.
Speaking on the subject, she said: “I hope the nations will carry out the project of disarmament. I wonder which nation will be brave enough to lay down its arms first!”
“Don’t you hope it will be America?”
“Yes, I hope so, but I do not think it will. We are only just beginning to fight now,” she went on, sagely, “and I am afraid we like it. I think it will be one of the old, experienced nations, that has had enough of war.”
HER IDEAL OF A SUCCESSFUL CAREER.I asked Miss Keller what she considers most essential to a successful career.
She thought a moment, and then replied, slowly, “Patience, perseverance and fidelity.”
“And what do you look upon as the most desirable thing in life?”
“Friends,” was the prompt reply to this broad general question; and, as she uttered the word, she nestled closely to the friend who has so long been all in all to her.
“What about material possessions?” I asked; “for instance, which would you place first,—wealth or education?”
“Education. A good education is a stepping-stone to wealth. But that does not imply that I want wealth. It is such a care. It would be worse than dressing. ‘Give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me contentment,’” she quoted, with a smile.
The future of this most interesting girl will be followed with closest attention by educators, psychologists, and the public generally. There is little doubt that the time and care spent on her education will be amply justified; and that she will personally illustrate her own ideal of a successful career,—“To live nobly; to be true to one’s best aspirations,”—is the belief of all who know her.
Compiled From Sources In The Public Domain.
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It is not wealth one asks for, but just enough to preserve one’s dignity, to work unhampered, to be generous, frank and independent. W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage, 1915