Last Reviewed on March 10, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 972
Helen Keller begins her story by noting that autobiographies are difficult to write. Her memories will necessarily be imperfect, and it is difficult to separate fact from fantasy in examining one’s own childhood. She will therefore confine herself to a series of sketches illustrating “the most interesting and important” episodes.
Keller was born on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Her ancestors were Swiss, and one of them was a teacher of the deaf who wrote a book on the subject. Her grandfather settled in Alabama, and her father and members of her mother’s family fought in the Confederate Army during the Civil War.
Keller was an “eager, self-asserting” child who learned to speak at the age of six months and to walk after a year. However, in the February of her second year, she fell seriously ill, and the doctor in attendance thought she would die. The illness passed, and her family rejoiced at her survival, but she would never see or hear again.
Keller does not remember what happened immediately after her illness. She soon learned to make signs for the purposes of basic communication: nodding or shaking her head, pushing and pulling. However, she realized that she was different from other people, who talked with their mouths. Sometimes, she would touch the lips of people when they talked, growing frustrated at her own lack of understanding. She was often naughty and even occasionally violent. Her best friend was Martha Washington, the daughter of the family’s cook, and the two of them often got into trouble, stealing a cake from the kitchen and making themselves sick by eating it all, or cutting off each other’s hair. After her teacher, Miss Sullivan (of whom she has not yet spoken except to record this incident) arrived, Keller locked her in one of the upstairs rooms and refused to produce the key. Her father had to rescue Miss Sullivan with a ladder. Keller describes her father as loving and indulgent. His death in 1896 was the first great sorrow of her life.
When Helen Keller was about six years old, her parents took her to see an eminent oculist in Baltimore. Dr. Chisholm could do nothing to restore her sight but pointed out that a blind and deaf child could still be educated, advising them to consult Dr. Alexander Graham Bell. Dr. Bell referred Keller’s father to the Perkins Institution in Boston, where a teacher was found for Keller, though she did not arrive until the following March.
On March 3, 1887—a date which Keller says is the most important of her life—Anne Mansfield Sullivan came to Tuscumbia to teach her. Keller recalls that she had guessed “from the hurrying to and fro in the house that something unusual was about to happen.” She was standing on the porch when, she says,
I felt approaching footsteps, I stretched out my hand as I supposed to my mother. Some one took it, and I was caught up and held close in the arms of her who had come to reveal all things to me, and, more than all things else, to love me.
The morning after her arrival, Sullivan gave Keller a doll. She then spelled out the word “d-o-l-l” into Keller’s hand. The child was immediately interested and tried to imitate the formation of the letters with her fingers. Although she did not know what she was doing, or even that words existed, she learned to spell out many words in the ensuing weeks. A great breakthrough occurred one day when Sullivan was teaching Keller the words “mug” and “water.” Keller saw no difference between the two and, in her frustration, smashed her new doll on the floor. Sullivan then took her outside, and they walked to a well where someone was drawing water. Sullivan placed Keller’s hand under the spout so she could feel the water, then spelled out the word “w-a-t-e-r” into her other hand. Keller connected the two and realized, for the first time, that words apply to things.
Keller spent much of the following summer learning the names of the objects around her, discovering their beauty by touching them. She learned “that nature is not always kind,” once becoming frightened by a thunderstorm which broke suddenly as she was climbing a tree in her teacher’s absence. Her curiosity, however, was unquenchable, and although she stopped climbing trees for a time, she rediscovered the joy of doing so when she climbed high into a mimosa tree on a beautiful spring morning. After this, Keller spent hours high up in the tree “thinking fair thoughts and dreaming bright dreams.”
At first, Keller made slow progress in her studies and asked few questions. However, she suddenly started to ask a great many when Sullivan attempted to teach her the meaning of the word “love.” She thought that it must mean something like the scent of flowers or the warmth of the sun. However, when she came to understand that the word “think” referred to what was happening inside her head, Keller realized that the meaning of “love” was similarly abstract. Upon understanding this, she felt “that there were invisible lines stretched between my spirit and the spirits of others.”
Sullivan always spoke to Keller just as she would to a child who could hear, the only difference being that she spelled the words into her hand instead of speaking them. However, she also understood that the deaf child was not receiving anything like the same stimulus as one who could hear, since she could not overhear or join the conversations of others. Therefore, Sullivan made a practice of repeating to Keller as much as she could of what she herself heard, encouraging her pupil to take part in conversations. This, however, was a slow and difficult process.
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