To ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL
Who has taught the deaf to speak
and enabled the listening ear to hear speech
from the Atlantic to the Rockies,
I dedicate this Story of My Life.
This is the autobiography of the young Helen Keller, written when she was 22 and a student at all-female college Radcliffe. Although this is the writing of a young person (and with the weaknesses associated with that), this is a passionate reading experience that describes life for a woman who was hearing- and sight-impaired at the turn of the twentieth century in the U.S… It’s an amazing story of obstacles overcome at a time when even women who had few physical challenges were limited in scope with regard to education and career. The fact that Helen Keller did all these things with the physical obstacles that she had makes it even more admirable.
When Helen was 19 months old, she contracted “an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain” (perhaps scarlet fever or meningitis?) which led to her losing her vision and hearing. She had been able to see and hear before, but now she couldn’t, and this sudden isolation lead to Keller developing behavioral problems, and many in her family felt that she should be institutionalized.
When she was 6, her mother read Dickens’s travel writing called “American Notes”, and found out about the successful education of another blind/deaf young girl. Her parents sent her to Baltimore to see a famous doc there who had treated this other girl, and he then introduced her to Alexander Graham Bell (working w deaf children at the time and inventor of telephone). Through Bell, the family learned about a good school of the blind, and there, the family was put in touch with Anne Sullivan, who was also sight-impaired and who would become Helen’s governess and companion.
Proficient in a handful of different languages, well read, eloquent – this is all amazing because she was hearing-impaired and sight-impaired. Not to say that people who have those are stupid or inadequate, but saying that I can only imagine that learning esoteric subjects as Greek and maths must have been even more of a challenge if you can’t see what’s going on (the symbols, alphabet etc.) . (How to describe an algebraic formula, for example, using spelling in the palm of your hand??) I could both see and hear and had a formal education, and I still had problems with algebra and geometry…
Written in her second year at Radcliffe at age of 22, Keller’s writing reflects her youth and she has worries that are typical of most college students: finals and tests, how to sort out the never-ending new information that you learn every day, wishing to hang out with your friends instead of having to take the extra time to listen your text books being read out loud… There is absolutely no sense of self-pity although she is very honest about getting grumpy and frustrated every now and then (as one does).
Here is a quotation about how Keller feels going to college at Radcliffe:
Before me I saw a new world opening in beauty and light, and I felt within me the capacity to know all things. In the wonderland of Mind I should be as free as another. Its people, scenery, manners, joys, tragedies should be living, tangible interpreters of the real world.
However, she missed having time to reflect during her undergrad years: “One goes to college to learn, it seems, not to think… When one enters the portals of learning, one leaves the dearest pleasures – solitude, books, and imagination – outside with the whispering pines…” and it’s tough to concentrate on the information being taught as there is so much so fast (as it was being translated into manual language spelled into her hands by teacher Anne Sullivan). Keller writes that she “cannot make notes during the lectures because my hands are busy listening…” What a great description, don’t you think?
Her attitude is fabulous. For example, here is a quotation from her about her early college experience:
For, after all, everyone who wishes to gain true knowledge must climb the Hill Difficulty alone, and since there is no royal road to the summit, I must zigzag it in my own way. I slip back many times, I fall, I stand still, I run against the edge of hidden obstacles, I lose my temper and find it again and keep it better, I trudge on, I gain a little, I feel encouraged, I get more eager and climb higher and begin to see the widening horizon. Every struggle is a victory.
Books were extremely important to Keller as they helped her to learn what other people learned through sight and hearing. The first book she remembers making an impact was Little Lord Fauntleroy which was spelled out on her hand, one letter at a time. When she reads a good book, “My physical limitations are forgotten—my world lies upward, the length and the breadth and the sweep of the heavens are mine!”
Keller was the first deaf/blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, and as she became older, became more politically involved campaigning for women’s suffrage, labor rights, socialism, birth control supporter and other causes. She played an instrumental role in founding the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the Helen Keller International organization which funded research on blindness and awareness of that.
In 1964, Helen was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the U.S. highest civilian honors, and in 2003, Alabama honored her (born in AL) on its state quarter.
As was the time, before her political opinions were known, much was made of her courage and intelligence in media; once it became known that she supported “radical” (for back then) left causes, then it seemed that people focused more on her disabilities and used them to discredit her. (The more things change… )
A good read about a fascinating experience faced head-on. It’s good to be reminded of how great life can be sometimes.
Random aside #1: Keller is credited with having introduced the Akita dog breed to the U.S. after a visit to Japan in 1937.
Random Aside #2: Alexander Graham Bell’s mother had been hearing-impaired and had learned to play the piano despite not being able to hear. His grandfather was also interested in elocution and speech correction. His father designed Visible Speech technique which helped hearing-impaired people communicate more easily. Born in Scotland, but his family moved to the US for health reasons where his father taught for a while at the Boston School for Deaf Mutes [sic]. His father was unable to accept the job for a long period of time, so the school offered the position to son Alexander, whose interest was piqued by voice transmission and thus was born in a roundabout way and in collaboration with Thomas Watson, the telephone.
So – now you know….