Helen Keller: The Legendary 'First Lady of Courage'
A smaller version of this article was published in Teen Stuff Magazine. Issue: March 2003.
A shining beam of hope, an extraordinary human being and a significant historical asset. Blind and Deaf Since Infancy, Helen Keller became symbol of courage and of the indomitable human spirit. She went from an undisciplined child with severe challenges to one of the true heroes of the world. Her life as a girl and as a woman became a triumph over crushing adversity and shattering affliction. The first deaf-blind ever to graduate from college and become a successful writer. In darkness, she could discover a new world through the eyes, ears and hands of others. Yes, Helen Keller really made a difference.
The Life of Helen Keller
She was born June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, Alabama, at a time when deaf-blind people were likely to be consigned to the poor house or asylum and at the time of Helen's birth the family were far from wealthy. Her father was Captain Arthur H. Keller and her mother was Kate Adams Keller.
At the age of 19 months Helen had a fever that left her blind and deaf. The type and cause of the fever and the nature of her ailment to this day remain a mystery. The doctors then called it "brain fever", whilst modern day doctors think it may have been scarlet fever or meningitis.
Helen had begun to make sounds before the fever and had remembered the word "wah-wah" for water. This was a foreshadowing, for water was to be the key to her world of language.
"I cannot remember how I felt when the light went out of my eyes. I suppose I felt it was always night and perhaps I wondered why the day did not come." Said Helen Keller
The Story behind Helen Keller: Anne Sullivan
A daughter of Irish immigrants, half-blind herself as a child, educated at Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown, Massachusetts, A recent graduate of the school. Johanna (Anne) Mansfield Sullivan, also known as Annie and Teacher, was offered the position of tutoress. In March 1887, Annie arrived in Tuscumbia to live with the Kellers.
Many people who mention the name Helen Keller think that she made her glory by her own. But in fact, that lady was inspired by the great companion Anne Sullivan. Anne was one of the main reasons behind all what Helen Keller was and all what she achieved.
"The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher came to me," Miss Keller wrote later. "It was the third of March, 1887, three months before I was 7 years old. "
A Wild Child
Helen had learned to communicate many of her wishes with various signs--But she was otherwise frustrated in her attempts to communicate, and her frustration led to behaviour problems. She would kick and fuss and demand her own way.
"I saw clearly that it was useless to try to teach her language or anything else until she learned to obey me. I have thought about it a great deal, and the more I think, the more certain I am that obedience is the gateway through which knowledge, yes, and love, too, enter the mind of a child." Anne Sullivan
Obedience Came First
Anne became a live-in teacher. She immediately began to use finger spelling in Helen's hand to name objects. Helen quickly learned the fingerspell patterns but considered them a game and did not yet relate them to names for objects. Eventually, the behavior problems were brought under control, but Helen still did not understand words.
F-I-N-G-E-R S-P-E-L-L April 5, 1887
The communication breakthrough came with a trip to the well. Helen had been learning the fingerspell patterns for W-A-T-E-R and M-U-G, but she still did not relate them to a liquid and its container.
Later, when they were walking by the well house, Anne placed Helen's hand under the water coming from the pump and spelled W-A-T-E-R. And that was the beginning
"Helen got up this morning like a radiant fairy. She has flitted from object to object, asking the name of everything and kissing me for very gladness. Last night when I got into bed, she stole into my arms of her own accord and kissed me for the first time, and I thought my heart would burst, so full was it of joy" Anne Sullivan's words, "I knew then that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free. There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that in time could be swept away."
Helen's quick progress from then on was astonishing. Her ability to learn was far in advance of anything that anybody had seen before in someone without sight or hearing.
By the summer of 1887, some four months after Anne's arrival, and as Helen approached her seventh birthday; she had a vocabulary numbering hundreds of words, and at the same time the child learned to lip-read by placing her fingers on the lips and throat of those who talked with her. Her crude speech and her lip-reading facility further opened her mind and enlarged her experience.
She could also print using block letters. And she began to mail letters to her relatives. That same summer Helen also learned the Braille alphabet.
The Miracle Child at Perkins School
In the spring of 1888, as Helen approached 8 years old she left Alabama with Anne to go to the Perkins School in Boston. She learned quickly and had an exceptional memory for details. Her capacity for quick learning and retention gave her the name of "miracle" child. And it was also during this summer that Helen learned about other languages such as Latin, French and German.
And in her ninth year, Helen Keller began to learn to speak. Her first speech teacher, Sarah Fuller, had her feel the shape of her mouth as she spoke, feeling inside the mouth to feel the position of the tongue. Helen spent many years trying to perfect her speaking ability, even into adulthood.
When Helen became old enough, she entered Cambridge School for Young Ladies to prepare for Radcliffe College.
Helen Keller chose the one college in America who did not want her, Radcliffe. They thought she could not compete with "sighted" students, and this was a challenge to Helen. She first passed her entry exams, and then with Anne Sullivan as a translator, attended regular classes. She graduated in 1904 when she was twenty-four years old being the first deaf-blind individual to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree and disproving those who said that she couldn't hope to compete with sighted and hearing students. In fact, her determination and uncanny memory made her an excellent scholar
"I slip back many times," she wrote of her college years. "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 widening horizons. Every struggle is a victory."
The Story of HER Life
During her college years, Helen wrote the autobiography, The Story of my Life first published in serial form in the Ladies Home Journal and in 1902, The Story of my Life appeared in book form. This was always to be the most popular of her works and today is available in more than 50 languages. Most reviewers found the book well written, but some critics, including that of The Nation, scoffed. "All of her knowledge is hearsay knowledge," The Nation said, "her very sensations are for the most part vicarious and she writes of things beyond her power of perception and with the assurance of one who had verified every word."
Keller's defenders replied that she had ways of knowing things not reckoned by others. When she wrote of the New York subway that it "opened its jaws like a great beast," it was pointed out that she had stroked a lion's mouth and knew whereof she spoke. At a circus zoo she had also shaken hands with a bear, patted a leopard and let a snake curl itself around her.
"I have always felt I was using the five senses within me, that is why my life has been so full and complete," Keller said at the time. She added that it was quite natural for her to use the words "look," "see" and "hear" as if she were seeing and hearing in the full physical sense.
Anne Sullivan Macy
John Albert Macy, a Harvard English instructor, was hired to help with the editing of the book. He worked closely with Helen and Anne, and in the years following this effort, he and Anne fell in love. Anne resisted because of her commitment to Helen, but with Helen's encouragement they were married on May 2, 1905.
After college Miss Keller continued to write, publishing "The World I Live In" in 1908, "The Song of the Stone Wall" in 1910 and "Out of the Dark" in 1913.
In 1914, Anne Sullivan's health was failing, so a new companion was needed for Helen. This was how Polly Thompson entered Helen's life. Polly was a young woman who had recently arrived from Scotland, and although she had no experience with the blind or deaf, she was hired to keep house. She was to become a lifelong companion to Helen.
Love in Helen's Life
A moment of love did come in Helen's life. In 1916, a young man named Peter Fagan, a 29-year-old newspaperman who was her temporary secretary had been hired to help while Anne Sullivan was ill and Polly was away. The couple took out a marriage license, intending a secret wedding. But a Boston reporter found out about the license, and his witless article on the romance horrified the stern Mrs. Keller, who ordered Mr. Fagan out of the house and broke up the relationship. Although there were a few follow-up letters between Helen and Peter (written in Braille), the romance died.
"The love which had come, unseen and unexpected, departed with tempest on his wings," Miss Keller wrote in sadness, adding that the love remained with her as "a little island of joy surrounded by dark waters."
For years her spinsterhood was a chief disappointment. "If I could see," she said bitterly, "I would marry first of all."
As a Hollywood Star
In 1919, Helen starred in a silent movie on her life. This was well received but was a failure financially. However, the movie led to a vaudeville tour for four years in the early 1920s, which was a financial success.
Helen Keller and Organizations
Helen Keller was as interested in the welfare of blind people in other countries as she was for those in her own country; conditions in the underdeveloped and war-ravaged nations were of particular concern. She never lost sight of the needs of her fellow blind and deaf-blind, she was deeply concerned for this group of people and was always searching for ways to help those who are "less fortunate than myself." -As she called them-.
Her active participation in this area of work for the blind began as early as 1915 when she assisted in the establishment of a service organization then called the American Braille Press, later named the American Foundation for Overseas Blind (AFOB) now (Helen Keller International).
In 1921, the American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) was organized in New York City. Helen Keller was invited to be a spokesperson and ambassador for the Foundation. She traveled extensively with Anne and Polly, giving speeches and raising funds for the blind and for related causes. Along with her books that reached to eleven ones and numerous articles on blindness, deafness, social issues and women's rights, this was to become her life's work. She not only collected money, but also sought to alleviate the living and working conditions of the blind.
"The public must learn that the blind man is neither genius nor a freak nor an idiot. He has a mind that can be educated, a hand which can be trained, ambitions which it is right for him to strive to realize, and it is the duty of the public to help him make the best of himself so that he can win light through work." From Helen Keller's words.
Touring the World
A tireless traveler, Miss Keller toured the world with Miss Sullivan and Miss Thomson in the years before World War II. Everywhere she went she lectured in behalf of the blind and the deaf. She met and visited the Queen at Buckingham Palace. There were visits to France, Yugoslavia, and Japan. She travelled to the farthest reaches of the world; became a leading figure who publicly campaigned on behalf of civil rights, human dignity, womens suffrage, and world peace.
However, throughout these years, Anne's health was failing. She lost her sight and there was an "internal disorder." On the 20th of October 1936, at the age of 70, Anne died in Forest Hills. Her ashes were placed in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC, after a funeral in New York City. Anne was the first female to be offered this distinction. She is now remembered as "the Miracle Worker" for her lifetime dedication, patience and love to a wild child trapped in a world of darkness.
She was one of the most remarkable characters of modern times. The noble courage of her mind and the generous charity of her heart won for her the respect and the affection of all who knew her story. To see her was to find new reason for being proud of being human. Miss Keller was but a single proof of her genius. Her personal choice was to be simply the shadow of her famous pupil.
"I wanted to be loved. I was lonesome, then Helen came into my life. I wanted her to love me and I loved her. Then later Polly came and I loved Polly and we were always so happy together--my Polly, my Helen...Thank God I gave up my life so that Helen might live. God help her to live without me when I go." Anne Sullivan, from her deathbed
After Anne, Helen's work for the AFB and other worthy causes continued for many years. During World War II, she also visited disabled soldiers and in 1946 she began the globe-circling tours on behalf of the blind for which she was so well known during her later years. During seven trips between 1946 and 1957 she visited 35 countries on five continents. In 1955, when she was 75 years old, she embarked on one of her longest and most grueling journeys, a 40,000-mile, five-month-long tour through Asia. Wherever she traveled, she brought new courage to millions of blind people, and many of the efforts to improve conditions among the blind abroad can be traced directly to her visits.
And she also wrote: "My Religion" in 1927; "Midstream--My Later Life" in 1930; "Peace at Eventide" in 1932; "Helen Keller's Journal," in 1938; and "Teacher" in 1955. In addition, she was a frequent contributor to magazines and newspapers.
Polly Thompson continued as her companion until Polly's death in 1960.
"All my life I have tried to avoid ruts, such as doing things my ancestors did before me, or leaning on the crutches of other people's opinion, or losing my childhood sense of wonderment. I am glad to say I still have a vivid curiosity about the world I live in...It is as natural for me to believe that the richest harvest of happiness comes with age as to believe that true sight and hearing are within, not without" Helen Keller, on being asked about growing older.
Despite the celebrity that accrued to her and the awesomeness that surrounded her in her later years, Miss Keller retained an unaffected personality and a certainty that her optimistic attitude toward life was justified.
"I believe that all through these dark and silent years God has been using my life for a purpose I do not know," she said, adding "But one day I shall understand and then I will be satisfied."
Her Last public appearance was in 1961 (Lions International meeting in Washington, D.C.), At that meeting she received the Lions Humanitarian Award for her lifetime of service to humanity and for providing the inspiration for the adoption by Lions International of their sight conservation and aid to blind programs.
And in her later years, Helen Keller lived on into retirement. Helen Keller lived quietly at Arcan Ridge. She saw her family, close friends, and associates from the American Foundation for the Blind and spent much time reading. She could be seen talking to herself with her fingers. Her fingers, her windows to the world, would flutter with unspoken remembrances of her long and wonderful life.
She died peacefully in her sleep in the afternoon of June 1st, 1968, and just before her 88th birthday. Her ashes were placed next to her beloved companions, Anne Sullivan Macy and Polly Thomson, in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.
Her Honours, Rewards and Awards
Despite her retirement from public life, Helen Keller was not forgotten. She was honored by universities and institutions throughout the world. She held honorary memberships in scientific societies and philanthropic organizations throughout the world and she was received in the White House by every President from Grover Cleveland to John F. Kennedy, and received awards of great distinction too numerous to recount fully here. She also got an Oscar in 1955 for the documentary film "The Unconquered," later renamed "Helen Keller in Her Story;" under that title, it won an Oscar, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences award as the best feature-length documentary film of the year. She was also awarded different awards from Brazil, Japan, Philippines, Lebanon and a lot of countries. An entire room, called the Helen Keller Room, is devoted to their display at the American Foundation for the Blind in New York City.
More rewarding to her than the many honours she received, that during her lifetime, she met and often formed lasting friendships with the great national and international personalities of her day. Two friends from her early youth, Mark Twain and William James, expressed beautifully what most of her friends felt about her.
Mark Twain said, "The two most interesting characters of the 19th century are Napoleon and Helen Keller."
William James wrote about Helen Keller, "But whatever you were or are, you're a blessing!"
Helen Keller Annual Festival
Thousands of visitors gather in Tuscumbia each June for the annual Helen Keller Festival, a weeklong event first held in 1979 to commemorate the lifetime accomplishments of the town's most renowned native, Helen Keller.
After establishing a successful intramural research program, the AFB is now concentrating on expanding its extramural vision research program and extending its efforts to include speech and hearing research and education.
Many who observed Keller - and to some she was a curiosity and publicity-seeker - found it difficult to believe that a person so handicapped could acquire the profound knowledge and the sensitive perception and writing talent that she exhibited when she was mature. Helen Keller always insisted that there was nothing mysterious or miraculous about her achievements. All that she was and did, she said, could be explained directly and without reference to a "sixth sense." Her dark and silent world was held in her hand and shaped with her mind.
When she was asked about what gave her the courage to go onShe answered, "The Bible and poetry and philosophy." She also said that she had never had the feeling that God seemed to desert her.
Helen Keller's Quotes
It isnt only that Helen was able to overcome the barriers of being blind and deaf in a time when they were much greater disadvantages than they are now; her intelligence and perception speak to many people, blind or sighted, deaf or hearing. Here are some of the many insightful quotes that prove how great and determined she was.
- The highest result of education is tolerance.
- When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.
- Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature... Life is either a daring adventure or nothing.
- I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; and because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.
- We can do anything we want to do if we stick to it long enough.
- Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.
- It is not possible for civilization to flow backwards while there is youth in the world. Youth may be headstrong, but it will advance it allotted length.
- I believe that life is given to us so we may grow in love, and I believe that God is in me as the sun is in the colour and fragrance of a flower. The Light is my darkness, The Voice is my silence.
Helen Keller spent a life in helping others. She had boundless energy. Many people noticed her kindness, generosity and enthusiasm. She thought the best of people and typically brought out the best. She never lost a sense of true empathy for the disabled.
She had a sparkling humor and a warm handclasp that won everyone easily. She exuded vitality and optimism, "My life has been happy because I have had wonderful friends and plenty of interesting work to do," she once remarked, adding: "I seldom think about my limitations, and they never make me sad. Perhaps there is just a touch of yearning at times, but it is vague, like a breeze among flowers. The wind passes, and the flowers are content."
She was a giant inspiration for millions who are deaf, blind, both, or neither. Helen's success would have been impossible without the cooperation of others like Anne Sullivan, who stands as a reminder that only through cooperation and dogged determination combined can any human being live a life which is worthy of the name.
Helen Keller today remains a woman whose astounding personality and accomplishments attract widespread admiration and awe. Her valiant life continues to raise complex Thinking about her; one's own brain goes only so far. Those of us with five senses are missing a sense of how Helen Keller thought with three. Helen Keller became known as the "Eighth Wonder of the World" and one of the foremost women of our time.
But the reason behind writing this article is that I've seen in Helen Keller a lot to learn, she wasn't a symbol of courage for the blind and the disabled only, but for all of us, especially teens, because nowadays when we sometimes feel down and helpless, we give up and then we don't want to face anything because we claim we are not strong enough, but in this lady's life, we find that whenever she felt down or helpless, she never gave up, thus, she was never defeated. Illness, disability, weakness, nothing could prevent her from being the great person she had becomeI really hope that each and everyone will learn something from the life of such a great lady and a great teacher that was another symbol of patience and courage. And as Aristotle said "The sign of a great teacher is that the accomplishments of her students exceed her own." Both of these women were remarkable human beings who rose above seemingly insurmountable odds. They both taught us that the only true disability is a disability of the heart. We will always remember them with total admiration and respectand. I'd like to wind up with some of the words said by Senator Lister Hill of Alabama in his eulogy in Helen Kellers funeral, expressing the feelings of the whole world when he said of Helen Keller, "She will live on, one of the few, the immortal names not born to die. Her spirit will endure as long as man can read and stories can be told of the woman who showed the world there are no boundaries to courage and faith."