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Helen’s apprehension before writing her autobiography
Helen felt a kind of hesitation before she set on the task of penning down her autobiography and, thus, reveal the story of her life. In addition, the task itself was a difficult one for Helen: looking back, she could hardly distinguish between the facts and the fancies across the years. Furthermore, in the process of learning new things, she had forgotten many important incidents and experiences of her childhood.
Birth of Helen
Helen Adams Keller was born on a plantation called Ivy Green in Tuscumbia, Alabama, on June 27, 1880.
She was the eldest daughter of Captain Arthur H. Keller, a former officer of the Confederate Army, and Kate Adams. Helen was named after her grandmother, Helen Everett. Even as an infant, she showed signs of eagerness and independence. By the age of six months, Helen attracted everyone’s attention piping out words like “How d’ye” and “tea”. Helen suffers an illness that leaves her deaf and blind
In February, 1882, at the age of nineteen months, Helen fell ill with “an acute congestion of the stomach and brain”, which could possibly have been scarlet fever or meningitis.
This illness left her deaf and blind. Later on, her spirit was liberated from the “world of silence and darkness” by her teacher, Anne Sullivan.
Helen’s initial attempts to communicate
After her sickness, Helen started using “crude signs” to communicate with others. A shake of the head meant “No” and a nod “Yes”, a pull meant “Come” and a push, “Go”.
If she wanted anything, she would imitate the relevant action. Her mother encouraged her by involving her in the household activities. This made Helen more observant of the actions performed by the people around her.
Observing herself as different from others
Helen started to observe that unlike her, other people did not use signs for communication but talked with their mouths. She realized that she was different from others. She attempted to copy them but in vain. At times, she released her frustration on her nurse, Elisa, by kicking and screaming at her until she felt exhausted. She regretted her misbehavior but did not try to change it.
Companionship with Martha Washington and Bell
Martha Washington was a little coloured girl who understood Helen’s signs. She was the cook’s daughter. Martha submissively obeyed Helen, who in turn enjoyed domineering over her. Both the girls spent a lot of time in the kitchen, kneading dough balls, grinding coffee, quarrelling over the cake bowl. Helen enjoyed feeding the hens and turkeys, and feeling them as they ate from her hands. She also loved to hunt for guinea-fowl eggs in the long grass. Even though Helen could not understand Christmas per se, she enjoyed the preparations leading to that occasion.
One July afternoon, when Helen and Martha were bored of cutting paper dolls, they came up with the idea of cutting each other’s hair. Helen cut Martha’s hair and Martha cut off a curl of Helen’s. Martha would have cut them all if it weren’t for Helen’s mother’s timely intervention. Belle was a lazy old dog and a companion of Helen. Despite of her attempts, it was inattentive to her signs and gestures. As a result, Helen would get frustrated and go looking for Martha.
Helen is saved by the nurse from getting burnt
Once, while drying her wet apron in front of the hearth, Helen ended up going too close to the fire. Her clothes caught fire. Fortunately, she was saved by the nurse, Viny, who threw a blanket around her to extinguish the fire. Except for her hands and hair, she was not badly burnt. Discovering the use of a key: used as a tool for mischief
About that time, Helen found out the use of a key. The mischievous Helen played a prank on her mother by locking her in the pantry. After Miss Sullivan arrived to teach her, she played the same prank on her. Helen locked her teacher in her room and refused to reveal the hidden key. Eventually, her father had to intervene and take Miss Sullivan out of the room through the window. When Helen was around five years old, the Keller family moved from the ‘little vine-covered house’ to a large new one.
The loving relationship between Helen and her father
Helen’s father was loving and indulgent. Helen was fond of the stories her father narrated to her by forming spellings on her hand. Her father in turn enjoyed Helen’s reiteration of these stories. Her father’s death in the summer of 1896 was Helen’s “first great sorrow– [her] first personal experience with death.”
Helen’s relationship with her baby sister
Initially, Helen viewed her younger sister, Mildred, as an intruder. She felt that her sister got all the attention from her mother. Helen vented her frustration and showed her affection on her doll, Nancy. Once Helen overturned Nancy’s cradle in which her sister was sleeping. Fortunately, their mother’s timely arrival saved Mildred. Later, however, the love between the hearts of the two sisters prospered despite the fact that neither of them understood the language of the other.
The need for a better means of communication
Gradually, the few signs that were used by Helen to communicate became inadequate. Failure to get across her thoughts led to fits of anger and frustration in Helen. She felt miserable. As a result, it became imperative for her parents to find a teacher or a school for Helen so that she could learn a better means of communication. Helen’s mother’s hope was aroused by an account she read in Dickens’s “American Notes” about the education of Laura Bridgeman, a deaf and blind student, by Dr. Howe. Unfortunately, his methods had possibly died with him. Besides, it would not be easy to find a teacher who would come to their distant town in Alabama to teach Helen.
The train journey to Baltimore
Helen was six when her father decided to consult an oculist in Baltimore for the treatment of Helen’s sight. Helen enjoyed the new experiences during her trip. She was happy to receive a box of shells from a lady and a doll made out of towels from her aunt during the journey. She also played with the “punching machine” of the conductor. In fact, she did not experience any fits of temper during her journey as there were so many things to keep her mind and hands busy. Exploring the possibilities of Helen’s education at Baltimore At Baltimore, Dr. Chisholm said that there was nothing he could do about Helen’s sight.
However, he advised Helen’s father to consult Dr. Alexander Graham Bell of Washington, who would be able to guide them in regards to the education of Helen. Meeting Dr. Bell was a great experience for Helen. He understood Helen’s signs, which made her happy. This meeting was the beginning of a long friendship between Dr. Bell and Helen. Helen later recalled this interview as the foundation of her journey from darkness to light, “from isolation to friendship, companionship, knowledge and love.” Dr. Bell advised Mr. Keller to write to Dr. Anagnos, the director of the Perkins Institute in Boston. Her father wrote to him without any delay and got a reply in positive.
Finally, in the March of 1887, Miss Sullivan arrived at the Keller house.
The most important day of Helen’s life
Miss Anne Mansfield Sullivan arrived at the house of the Keller family on the third of March, 1887. This was the day from which Helen’s life started to transform; the ailing spirit of Helen could only find solace by the knowledge delivered by Miss Sullivan. Beginning of the journey of knowledge with Miss Ann Sullivan Miss Sullivan gave Helen a doll, which was a present from the little blind students of the Perkins Institute and was dressed by Laura Bridgeman. Miss Sullivan spelled the word ‘D-O-L-L’ on Helen’s hands. Helen managed to imitate the movements of her fingers even though she was not aware of the fact that Miss Sullivan was trying to teach her the name of the thing. It took several weeks for Helen to realize that everything has a name.
Miss Sullivan tried to teach the names of several other objects to Helen, such as “M-U-G” and “W-A-T-E-R”, but Helen was annoyed at the repeated attempts of her teacher and she broke her doll on the floor. One day, when they were walking in the garden, Miss Sullivan put Helen’s hand under a spout of water. As the cool stream gushed over Helen’s hand, Miss Sullivan spelled the word “water” on the other. Then Helen realized that ‘water’ meant that “cool something that was flowing over [her] hand”. She experienced the joy of gaining knowledge. When she returned to the house, she was eager to learn since “every name gave birth to a new thought”. That day Helen learnt several new words, including “father”, “mother” and “teacher”. This eventful day left her very happy and excited. She waited eagerly for the upcoming new day.
Helen could experience new joy as she learned the names of the objects and their uses. This made her more confident and familiar with the outside world. Learning lessons in the lap of nature Helen had many new experiences during her summer trip to the banks of the Tennessee River with Miss Sullivan. There, sitting on the warm grass, Helen learned lessons from her teacher. She got to know how birds make their nests; how trees grow with the help of the sun and the rain; how animals find food for themselves, etc. She became more sensitive to nature and rejoiced the company of the world about which she was now more informed.
Helen learns that nature is not always kind
One day Miss Sullivan helped Helen to climb up a tree. It was a pleasant sunny afternoon and they decided to have their luncheon there. Miss Sullivan left to fetch the food, with Helen sitting on a tree alone. Suddenly the weather became dark and stormy. Helen was terrified and felt alienated from the world. Helen longed for the return of her teacher and above all to get down from the tree. Too scared to jump, she “crouched down in the fork of the tree”. Just as she thought she would fall along with the tree, her teacher rescued her. Helen felt relieved to reach the ground safely. This experience taught her that nature is not always kind, that nature “wages open war against her children…”
Rejoicing independence and a new bond with nature
Helen continued to be terrified of climbing a tree for a long time. One day, however, she was lured to climb a ‘Mimosa tree’ by its beautiful fragrance. She did experience some difficulty in holding on to the large branches but the pleasure of attempting something new and wonderful kept her going. Finally, she sat down on a “little seat” and felt like a “fairy sitting on a rose cloud”.
With the acquisition of words, Helen turns more inquisitive
Gradually, Helen’s knowledge grew in terms of vocabulary and subsequently, her area of inquiry broadened. She returned to the same subject repeatedly, eager for more and more information. Challenges in understanding abstract ideas
One day Helen brought a bunch of violets for her teacher. Miss Sullivan put her arm around Helen to show her affection and spelled into her hand, “I love Helen”. But Helen failed to understand the meaning as she tried associating it with a thing and not with an emotion or an abstract idea. She was disappointed by the fact that her teacher could not “show” her what love meant.
The first conception of an abstract idea
A couple of days later, when Helen was stringing beads of different sizes, her teacher kept on pointing out mistakes to her. Helen was trying to think about the correct arrangement when Miss Sullivan touched her forehead and spelled the word “think” on her hand. Helen suddenly realized that the word is the name of the process going on in her mind. This was Helen’s first conscious awareness of an abstract idea. Finally, her teacher explained to her that, “you cannot touch love either; but you feel the sweetness that love pours into everything.” The tedious process of learning for a deaf and blind child like Helen Miss Sullivan encouraged Helen to talk to her. She supplied her with several words and idioms by spelling them on her hand. It was a long and tedious process that continued for several years. This was because Helen could neither distinguish between the different tonalities of the speaker nor look at his expressions.
Learning to read
The next important lesson for Helen was learning how to read. Once Helen had managed to spell a few words, her teacher gave her slips of cardboard with raised letters printed on them. Helen promptly learned that each printed word stood for an object, an act, or a quality. She was given the slips of paper, which represented, for example, “doll”, “is”, “on”, “bed”, and each name was placed on the relevant object. Her doll was put on the bed with words is, on, bed arranged beside the doll, thus making a sentence out of it. From the printed slips Helen moved on to read printed books. Helen enjoyed hunting for the words she knew in her book “Reading for Beginners”.
Learning lessons out of doors and through illustrations
Miss Sullivan taught Helen with the help of illustrations through beautiful story or a poem. In this way, she made each difficult lesson easy to learn. The early lessons were carried out in the sunlit woods. Among other places that Helen often visited were the garden and the orchard. Helen’s favourite walk was to the Keller’s Landing, an old wharf on the Tennessee River. There she was also given geography lessons in a playful manner without any exhaustion or feeling of being taught lessons. Helen built dams with pebbles, made islands and lakes, and dug river-beds. Miss Sullivan built “raised maps in clay” on a sheet so that Helen could feel the mountains, ridges and valleys by following her fingers. She illustrated the division of earth into different zones with the help of illustrative strings and “orange stick” representations.
Miss Sullivan taught Helen arithmetic, botany and zoology with the same leisurely approach. Learning in the form of stories that were based on the gifts received by Helen A collection of fossils was once gifted to Helen by a gentleman. These served as a key to the “antediluvian world” on which Miss Sullivan narrated dreadful tales about various beasts and devils with unpronounceable names. Another time, a beautiful shell was gifted to Helen, and it helped her to learn about the habitat of the marine animals. She associated the shell building process with the working of the mind. Just as the Nautilus changes the material it absorbs from water and makes it a part of itself, similarly, the mind converts the “bits of knowledge” that one gathers into “pearls of thought”.
Lessons of science from life itself
Miss Sullivan picked up illustrations for her lessons from life itself. She taught the growth of a plant by making observations on a growing lily plant kept on the window. Helen learnt about the behaviour of animals by feeling the tadpoles in a “glass globe” and monitoring their growth.
Teaching skills of Miss Sullivan
Miss Sullivan was a teacher with great teaching skills: she was sympathetic and loving. She could seize the right moment for delivering knowledge to Helen, which made learning experience pleasant. Helen developed such closeness with her teacher that she hardly thought herself distant from her. She acknowledges her teacher for all the good in her and as a source of aspiration to gain knowledge.
Preparing for Christmas celebration
Helen eagerly waited for the first Christmas after the arrival of Miss Sullivan. Everyone in the house was planning surprises for Helen and she, in turn, was preparing surprises for them with the help of her teacher. Her friends incited her excitement by throwing hints at her with “half spelled words” and “incomplete sentences” which were both amusements and language lessons for her. Meanwhile, Miss Sullivan and Helen played the guessing game every evening to help her learn the use of language.
On Christmas Eve, Helen was invited to a school in Tuscumbia. She felt excited in the presence of a beautiful Christmas tree standing in the centre of the room. She was delighted when asked to distribute presents among the school children. She received her gifts as well. However, she was not satisfied with these and wanted those gifts that were being planned by her family and friends. Later, she waited eagerly for the morning to discover her Christmas presents from Santa Claus and others.
Helen’s new pet: Tim:
Helen woke up to a large number of gifts. She was most pleased by her teacher’s gift: a canary bird. Helen named the little bird as ‘Tim’ and Miss Sullivan taught her to take proper care of it. Tim was a friendly bird who clenched to Helen’s fingertip and loved to eat candied cherries out of her hand. Helen grew quite fond of Tim, until one fateful day when a cat ate the bird. That day, she had forgotten to shut the door of the cage and as she was returning with water for the bird’s bath, she felt a pussy cat pass by her. Soon she realized what happened: she would not be able to see it again.
The journey to Boston in May, 1888
In May, 1888, Helen travelled to Boston with Miss Sullivan and her mother. This journey was different from the previous journey to Baltimore as she was no longer a young “restless” child. Instead, she was now a calm child sitting beside her teacher who was informing her about the views outside the car window: the Tennessee River, cotton fields, hills, woods and so on.
Helen recalls the tragic end of Nancy, her doll
After their arrival at Boston, Helen’s doll Nancy underwent a sad experience. During the journey, the doll became dirty and hence, the laundress at the Perkins Institution gave her a bath. Consequently, the doll turned into a “formless heap of cotton” and could only be recognized by Helen by her “two bead eyes”. Helen’s friendly arrival at the Perkins Institution for the Blind Helen could befriend the blind children at the Perkins Institute quite easily. She was delighted to be able to communicate with the blind children in her own language. Besides, she was happy to be at the same institute where Laura Bridgeman had been taught. She envied the blind children only in one aspect: their ability to hear. Eventually, Helen felt contended and happy in their company and forgot all her pain.
Helen’s first history lesson at Bunker Hill
While Helen was at Boston, she visited the Bunker Hill. There she had her first history lesson. She was thrilled to imagine that she was standing at the high stairway which was once used by the soldiers to shoot their enemies.
Helen’s maiden ocean voyage: trip to ‘Plymouth’:
The next day, they went to Plymouth by water. It was Helen’s first trip on the ocean and first voyage on a steamboat. On reaching their destination, she felt the curves and cuts of the Plymouth Rock and the “1620” engraved on it. A gentleman at the Pilgrim Hall museum gave her a small model of the rock. She was familiar with the wonderful stories about the Pilgrims that visited that rock. She could idealize them for their bravery and zeal to acquire home in an unknown territory. Later on, she was disappointed to know about their shameful acts of persecuting minority groups like the ‘Quakers’.
Close companionship with Mr. William Endicott and his daughter Among her close friends at Boston were Mr. William Endicott and his daughter. She was delighted by their stroll through their rose-garden of their house at Beverly Farms. Their dogs, Leo and Fritz, were quite friendly with Helen and the horse, Nimrod, poked his nose in her hand to get a pat. She also enjoyed playing in the sand near the sea. Mr. Endicott told her about great Europe-bound ships that sailed by from Boston. Helen recounts her whole experience at Boston as full of pleasure and denotes the city in one phrase as “The City of Kind Hearts”.
The vacation at Brewster with Mrs. Hopkins
When the Perkins institute closed for the summer, Helen and her teacher went to Brewster, on Cape Cod, to spend the vacation with a dear friend, Mrs. Hopkins. Helen had read about the sea in her book Our Worldand was excited to visit it.
Helen’s first encounter with the sea
Once at the sea shore, she hurriedly plunged into the water. She was enjoying the water, when suddenly her foot struck a rock. Her “ecstasy” changed into fear as she started drowning. She struggled for a while and finally, the waves threw her back on the shore and she was supported by the embrace of her teacher. After she recovered from the panic, she innocently asked her teacher, “Who put salt in water?” After she had recovered from the incident, Helen enjoyed sitting on a big rock and feeling the dashing of waves against the rock, sending up a shower of spray. She noticed the movement of the waves and their affect on the pebbles and the beach.
The horseshoe crab
Miss Sullivan drew Helen’s attention to a sea organism—the horseshoe crab. Helen was so fascinated by it that she carried the heavy crab all the way to their house. On reaching their home, she carefully placed it in a trough of water. But to her surprise, it disappeared the next morning. Helen slowly but surely realized her mistake of separating the crab from his habitat and felt happy thinking that it had possibly safely travelled to its home.
Spending a leisurely autumn at the Fern Quarry
Helen returned to her Southern home in autumn. She felt happy and content with her experiences in the north. She spent her autumn months with her family at their summer cottage, Fern Quarry. The cottage was like a “rough camp” situated on top of a mountain, near a limestone quarry. Helen spent her time in a leisurely manner at the cottage. Many visitors came to Fern Quarry. In the evening, men played cards and talked about their hunting experiences. She woke up in the morning with the sound of rattling guns and the smell of coffee. All the men went off to hunt after bidding each other good luck for the season. Later in the morning, barbecue was prepared.
The “savoury odour” of meat made her hungry even before the tables were set. Afterward, the hunting party also joined the feast of veal and roast pig, following their discussion on their hunting events during the day. Helen had a pony and she named it Black Beauty, having just completed the book. Sometimes, accompanied by her teacher, she rode the pony. At times, Miss Sullivan would release the rein and the pony would stop at his will to eat leaves from trees. On other days, they would go for walks in the woods and return home with armful of laurels, ferns and other beautiful flowers. Sometimes, she would go on similar trips with her sister and cousins.
Adventure with the train at the rail road
At the foot of the mountain there was a railroad and about a mile distant was a trestle spanning a deep gorge. Helen had never actually been there until one day when she, along with her sister and Miss Sullivan, got lost in the woods. They came across the trestle, which was a short cut to their home. Since they were lost, they decided to take this way in spite of the dangers: the ties were wide apart and quite narrow. Feeling the rails with the toes, Helen moved on the trestle cautiously but without fear. Suddenly, train was heard coming in from the other side. They had to climb quickly down upon the crossbraces while the train passed by. With some difficulty, they regained the track. When, ultimately, they reached back home, it had grown quite dark and all the family members were out looking for them.
Chilly winter at a New England Village
After her first visit to Boston, Helen continued to visit the north every winter. Once Helen went on a visit to a New England village. This village had frozen lakes and vast snow fields. It was here that Helen got to experience the snow. She explored the snow-covered hills and fields that were devoid of any life, the empty nests and the bare trees. One day, the advent of a snowstorm made Helen rush out-of-doors to enjoy the first few descending snowflakes. Gradually, the whole area was covered by snow and the morning became dark. In the evening, there was a snowstorm. Helen and her teacher spent their time sitting around the fire and narrating stories.
At night, they could hear the terrifying noise of the wind on the trees around the house and the creaking and breaking sounds of the rafters. On the third day, the storm was over and sunlight peeped out from the clouds. It scattered to the different places making everything shine and glow. The trees were standing still as if statues of “white marble”. The roads and paths were all covered with snow. Helen could scarcely feel the earth below her feet.
The favorite amusement during winters: tobogganing
Helen’s favorite pastime during the winters was tobogganing. Helen enjoyed plunging through the drifts, leaping hollows, drifting and swooping down upon the lake while riding on a toboggan.
Helen’s urge to speak
With the loss of the ability to hear, Helen’s speech had died down. However, from a young age, she had an impulse to speak. She tried to feel the noise that she made by keeping one hand on her throat and the other on her lips, feeling their movements. She produced sounds not to speak but for the exercise of her vocal chords. There was a feeling of lack in Helen which needed to be fulfilled. She was not satisfied with the means of communication she used and desperately wanted to learn to speak. In 1890, Mrs. Lamson, one of the teachers at the Perkins Institutions, told Helen about a deaf and blind girl, Ragnhild Kaata who had been taught to speak. Helen resolved that she will also learn to speak and Mrs. Lamson took her for advice and assistance to Miss Sarah Fuller, the principal of Horace Mann School.
Speaking lessons from Miss Sarah Fuller
Miss Sarah Fuller was a “sweet-natured lady” who started tutoring Helen on the 26th of March, 1890. Miss Fuller passed Helen’s hand lightly over her face to make her feel her tongue and lips when she made a sound. Within the first hour itself, Helen learnt six elements of speech: M, P, A, S, T, I. “It is warm” is the first complete sentence that Helen managed to utter. In total, eleven lessons were given to her by Miss Fuller. The syllables were broken but, nevertheless, human. She was eager to share her happiness with her family and to see the joy on their faces. Miss Fuller taught her the elements of the speech but she was to continue practicing herself with Miss Sullivan’s help.
Helen learns to speak with Miss Sullivan’s assistance
Miss Sullivan dragged Helen’s attention to the “mispronounced words”. Helen had to depend on the vibrations felt by her fingers, the movement of the mouth and expressions of the face. Discouragement wearied her efforts initially but as soon as she thought of the joy of her family, she felt optimistic. Helen gave up the manual alphabet method to develop her speech even though Miss Sullivan and her friends continued to use it to communicate with her.
The final moment of joy: Helen’s speech
Finally, the happiest moment arrived. Helen had developed speech and was eager to return home. As she reached the station and her family heard her speak, they were overjoyed. Her mother was speechless with delight and hugged her tightly; Mildred danced in joy clasped her hand and kissed her; and her father expressed his pride and affection by a “big silence”.
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