The History of

Helen and "Teacher"



The History of Helen and "Teacher"

Looking at the Pair from and Artistic Perspective

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            After Helen Keller lost her hearing and sight when she was a baby, everyone thought that she would be deprived of the opportunity to live a meaningful life.  These attitudes held by many were proving to be true, as Helen grew older and her condition progressed.  However, once Annie Sullivan, a teacher determined to help her student, entered Helen’s life, everything turned around.  Once the initial barriers were broken down, Keller was able to progress faster than anyone could have imagined, and was steadfast in her efforts to continue developing throughout her life.  From her victory in learning how to speak to her academic accomplishments, Keller’s progression was phenomenal.  These achievements, which can be classified as an absolute miracle, would have never been possible without the assistance of her brilliant companion and teacher.  Helen Keller’s success was a direct result of Annie Sullivan’s nonstop efforts to give life back to her student. 

            Sullivan was a maternal figure to Keller in many ways.  At first, Annie taught Helen the basic requirements of life.  Figuratively, she opened Helen’s eyes for the first time, showing her that there was a purpose to life.  Annie later aided Helen with more complex goals, such as being able to produce speech and graduating from college.  Helen’s development never stalled, and Sullivan found that she was growing along with her student.  Side by side, the teacher and student traveled down their path to knowledge and to independence. 

            Mothers are many times thought of as nurturing, caring figures who guide their children through mental and physical development.  According to this definition, Annie was very much like a mother to Helen.  Even after Annie died in 1936, Keller continued to be influenced by the previous work her teacher had done with her.  Watching the two of them blossoming together was similar to witnessing the growth between a mother and daughter.

            Annie Sullivan was born in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts in 1866.  When she turned five, Annie’s vision was damaged as a result of a disease called trachoma and because she remained untreated, this disease slowly caused her sight to deteriorate. Furthermore, as a child, she suffered from severe abuse.  “Annie, whose whole childhood had been one abandonment after another” (Lash 7) grew up in many different homes and orphanages.  She was a stubborn girl who would often act out and throw temper tantrums.

            Determined to escape from a life filled with abuse and neglect, Annie found a way to leave her previous setting.  On October 7, 1880, she entered the Perkins Institution for the Blind where she would receive a full education.  As well as advancing academically, she became knowledgeable in many life skills that would become useful in her years working with Keller.

            Entering the world as a happy, healthy child, Helen Keller was born to Kate and Captain Arthur Keller, on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama.  She was described as a smart and curious baby, “[showing] many signs of an eager, [self-assertive] disposition.  Everything that [she] saw other people do [she] insisted upon doing” (Keller 25).  When she was nineteen months old, Helen became ill, and was deprived of her hearing and vision.  Although the exact disease is unknown, some believe that she suffered from acute congestion of the stomach and brain (Keller 26).

            As she grew older, Helen began to realize that she was different from the people around her.  She felt isolated and struggled to find appropriate ways of engaging with other individuals.  Similar to Sullivan’s old behaviors, Helen would act up as a way of getting what she wanted.  Keller described how “The desire to express [herself] grew… [Her] failures to make [herself] understood were invariably followed by outbursts of passion.  [She] felt as if invisible hands were holding [her], and [she] made frantic efforts to free [herself]” (Keller 32).  Her symptoms were only worsened by her parents’ lack of discipline.  The entire Keller family was greatly distressed over Helen’s condition, and her parents were uncertain as to what they could do to help their daughter.

            Helen’s parents, Arthur and Kate, felt that there was little hope of raising their daughter to be a normal person.  Their final effort was to have a woman from the Perkins institute come to their home in Tuscumbia to try to tame Helen.  Helen referred to the day that Annie Sullivan entered her life on March 3, 1887, as her “soul’s birthday” (Keller 11).  Although Helen was almost seven when Annie arrived at her home, she was living without any use of language, and she lacked all forms of basic knowledge.

            Helen initially acted abusively towards Annie and did not welcome her teacher’s company.  As well as locking her instructor in a room, Helen would hit and bite her.  Keller did not like this new and unfamiliar life, which was now filled with structure and daily lessons.  She felt threatened by Annie’s presence.

            Regardless of Helen’s behavior, Annie learned that “It was useless to try to teach her language or anything else until she learned to obey [her teacher]” (Keller 249).  According to Annie, “The first lesson was the lesson of obedience, which required Helen’s vagrant and stubborn impulses be firmly controlled.  She could then be taught by the manual alphabet against the palm of her hand and associated with objects which she could identify by touch, gesticulation, or pantomime” (Keller 14).  Sullivan’s early instructions taught Keller proper table manners and how to carry herself like a respectful little child, as opposed to the wild girl she used to be.  After one of her many fights with Helen, Sullivan wrote in her journal, “I suppose I shall have many such battles with the little woman before she learns the only two essential things I can teach her, obedience and love” (Keller 248).

            Annie’s concern in teaching Helen how to behave properly reflects how a mother teaches her child to act appropriately.  It was observed that “Besides training Helen to sit and stand properly and walk with some grace, Teacher had all the cares that most parents have to make their children wash behind their ears, comb and brush their hair, and put on clean clothes” (Keller 49).  Sullivan would also punish Helen when she was acting out.  The same way that most parents are concerned that their children are doing the right things, Annie, in a similar fashion, took actions to make sure that her student was behaving herself.  It was noted that “As soon as Helen had gained enough words to distinguish between right and wrong, and committed a misdeed, Annie put her to bed like any naughty girl” (Keller 50).  Their interactions were very symbolic and reflect many of the natural processes that occur between a mother and daughter.

            Sullivan’s first attempt at teaching Keller words took place shortly after the two started their work together.  Annie had given her student a doll, and as Helen played with this new toy, Annie manually spelled d-o-l-l into the girl’s hand.  Helen did not understand that the letters Sullivan was relaying to Helen were actually symbolic.  Keller just thought that it was another game and was interested in trying to imitate the letters that were spelled.  At the time, Helen was not aware that she “was spelling a word or even that words existed; [she] was simply making [her] fingers go in monkey-like imitations” (Keller 35).  In a following lesson where Helen could not understand that the d-o-l-l strictly applied to that specific object, she grew angry and smashed the doll on the ground.

            One April 5, 1887, one month after Sullivan’s arrival, something switched on inside Helen, and she finally understood that every word had meaning behind it.  It was on that day that Helen comprehended the importance of language and was able to connect objects with their name.  Annie had taken Helen outside to a water spout, and as Helen was able to feel the cold fluid, Sullivan spelled w-a-t-e-r into her student’s hand.  It was “while Annie Sullivan pumped water over her hand it came to the child in a flash that water, wherever it was found, was water, and that the finger motions she had just felt on her palm meant water and nothing else.  In that thrilling moment she found the key to her kingdom.  Everything had a name and she had a way to learn the names” (Keller 11).  Once Helen grasped this idea that every word had a meaning behind it, she was eager to take in as much as she could.  After that, her improvement increased rapidly.

            This idea of Annie acting as a maternal figure to Helen can be specifically identified when Annie introduced her student to language.  Mothers are the first to introduce their children to language and to provide a system of communication.  A reflection of this pertinent idea is how “[Helen] was drawn to Teacher, not by a sense of obligation, but by the natural impulse of receiving from her finger-motion what her world-hunger craved, just as the infant reaches out to his mother’s breast for milk” (Keller 43).  The importance of nourishment is explained here.  The means to grow and develop can be found in both food and through communication.

            The next goal on Annie’s agenda was to win Helen’s devotion.  At first, Helen “refused to be caressed, and there was no way of appealing to her affection of sympathy or childish love of approbation” (Keller 249).  Annie’s efforts to attain Helen’s love represent Sullivan’s maternal desires.  After a while, Helen began to warm up to Sullivan and became affectionate, very similar to the way a child is with his mother. Like most children do, Helen formed an attachment to the primary parental figure in her life.  For Helen, this individual was Annie Sullivan.

            As well as spending the entire day together, they would continue their close proximity during the nighttime when Annie and Helen would sleep in the same bed.  In one of Sullivan’s daily logs she wrote that “After supper we go to my room and do all sorts of things until eight, when I undress the little woman and put her to bed.  She sleeps with me now.  Mrs. Keller wanted to get a nurse for her; but I concluded I’d rather be her nurse than look after a stupid, lazy negress.*  Besides, I like to have Helen depend on me for everything, and I find it much easier to teach her things at odd moments than at set times” (Keller 256).  Sullivan also expressed that “It is a great thing to feel that you are of some use in the world, that you are necessary to somebody.  Helen’s dependence on me for almost everything makes me strong and glad” (Keller 283).  These two passages clearly show Annie’s desire to be Helen’s primary caretaker.  In reality, Sullivan cared for Keller as a mother.

            Annie Sullivan assisted Helen throughout her education.  When Helen entered school, Annie would also learn the entire curriculum to better aid her student.  During class, Annie would sit by Helen’s side, translating the verbal lectures into a manual channel so her student would be able to understand.  Through Annie’s support, Helen was able to graduate cum laude from Radcliffe College in 1904.  Sullivan also aided in Keller’s quest to produce speech.  She would continually help her student to articulate and produce language that was understandable to the general public.  Helen attributed all of her accomplishments to Sullivan.  She expressed that “[Helen’s] teacher [was] so near to [her] that [Keller] can scarcely think of [herself] apart from her.  How much of [Helen’s] delight in all beautiful things [was] innate, and how much [was] due to [Sullivan’s] influence, [Keller] can never tell… All the best in [Helen belonged] to [Annie] -- there [was] not a talent, or an aspiration or a joy in [Helen] that [had] not been awakened by [Sullivan’s] loving touch” (Keller 47).

            By the early 1900’s, Sullivan and Keller had grown to become close partners.  After her initial role as an instructor and nurse, Annie slowly became a greater companion, and treated Helen more like a friend.  Helen later wrote that “Teacher was twenty-nine years of age and [she was] fifteen before [she] could for an idea of [Sullivan’s] personality apart from her vocation as devotee of loveliness” (Keller 69).  As adults, they were described as soul-mates. They would travel everywhere together and rarely were apart.  Annie followed Helen as she achieved many accomplishments, such as writing novels, and giving lectures.  Staying by Helen’s side, Annie would give her assistance whenever it was possible.

            The constant assistance and attention to Helen started to tire Annie.  Reading all of Helen’s academic literature produced too much stress on Sullivan’s eyes, and was primary in the destruction of her sight, causing her health to deteriorate.  Sullivan became weaker and could no longer to keep up with activities, such as traveling, that had become such a routine part of both Sullivan and Keller’s life.  By 1910 “Teacher’s sight was so undependable that she could no longer be sure of her movements in a strange place” (Keller 16).

            Some would describe the relationship between Helen and Annie as homoromantic.  Their love for each other expanded beyond their initial teacher-student rapport and even surpassed their mother-daughter bond.  As Annie’s health declined, Helen cared for her in many ways as a lover.  In order to support the two of them, Helen earned money by performing live theater.  Helen “knew what she was doing and was proud of it.  For the first time she was supporting herself, and not merely that: she was supporting two other women (her teacher, Annie, and a friend, Polly).  And not merely that: she was putting aside a modest fund for Teacher” (Keller 19).        

            On October 20, 1936, Annie Sullivan died.  People wondered how Helen would be able to survive without her soul-mate.  One poignant conversation illustrates this: “A few weeks before the end one who meant to comfort said, ‘Teacher, you must get well.  Without you Helen would be nothing.’  ‘That would mean,’ Annie Sullivan replied sadly, ‘that I have failed.’  For her basic aim had always been to make Helen free-- free even of her” (Keller 20).  Annie’s death had a great impact on Keller for not only was Helen losing her greatest companion, but she would also be stripped of her maternal figure.  Eventually Helen was able to celebrate Annie’s life rather than mourn her death.  She explained that “’People think Teacher has left me,’ Helen said, ‘but she is with me all the time’” (Keller 23).

            It is hard to think of Helen Keller without acknowledging her loyal teacher, Anne Sullivan.  Some wondered that “As long as Annie Sullivan lived, and she died in 1936, a question remained as to how much of what was called Helen Keller was in reality Annie Sullivan…neither could have done without the other” (Keller 13).  Sullivan took on the role as Keller’s mother, initially introducing her to the world and caring for Helen as she matured.  Annie’s patience, love, and devotion towards her pupil were the driving force that gave Helen Keller a chance to live.  Imagining either one of them functioning without the other is completely unfathomable.  Both Annie and Helen directly gained from their profound and mutual relationship.  Together, they were able to live a life beyond their wildest dreams.   

*Although it would be unacceptable today, it was common throughout the 1800’s to use the term “negress” in reference to someone who was African American.

By: Zoe Lewin
Revised: 12/2005.

HELEN         AND