HELEN'S LIFE PRIOR TO THE ARRIVAL OF ANNIE
THE NURTURING FIGURE OF HELEN
The ability of Helen Keller
to surmount her handicaps and learn to read, write, and speak despite her
deafness and blindness was a miracle, and people responded to her story
with emotions that ranged from admiration and incredulity to disbelief.
In Helen Keller’s own eyes, she believed that her success was due to the
constant support of and undying encouragement from her teacher, Annie Sullivan,
who persevered in showing her temperamental and uncooperative student how
to establish some sort of communication and contact with a world that Helen
could not see, hear, nor understand. Suffering from an ailment that
left her own sight impaired, Sullivan was able to understand the fear,
loneliness, and frustration that Helen felt in her tiny isolated world
of silence and darkness. This understanding allowed Sullivan to do
what others had failed to do for Helen: empathize with her student
without letting the latter to get away with whatever the latter wished
to do. This resolute teacher was finally rewarded for her efforts
with an extremely eager student, who demonstrated a thirst for knowledge
once the barrier formed by her handicaps that isolated her from the outside
gradually started to crumble because of the diligence of Annie Sullivan.
Sullivan was not only Helen Keller’s teacher, mentor, friend, and role
model, but she was also a mother figure, whose nurturing and care allowed
a lost and lonely child to grow and mature into a selfless and compassionate
adult, who followed in her mentor’s footsteps to work for the well-being
of the blind and deaf, as well as other unfortunate people.
Like Helen Keller, Annie
Sullivan was born a healthy child in April 1866. It was at a later
age, not until she was five years old, that she contracted trachoma, which
left her sight impaired. This misfortune allowed her to comprehend
the fear and loneliness that Helen Keller was living in every day and understand
the latter’s need to strike out at a world that Helen was excluded from,
for she herself had experienced the same frustrations as a child:
“Half-blind, hot-tempered…Annie responded to the miseries within and about
her by lashing out, childishly, throwing things, going into tantrums” (Lash
4). Unfortunately for Annie Sullivan, there was no understanding
and compassionate teacher to guide her and calm her frustrations with love
and care except an ill-tempered father, who labeled her as “a devil…and
tried to control her by beatings so severe that, to save her, Annie’s mother
would try to hide her little daughter” (Lash 4).
The hostile environment that Sullivan lived in was succeeded by another no less cruel after her mother’s death. She was sent to a state poorhouse in Tewksbury, where the living conditions were extremely unsanitary, and death was a frequent visitor among the inhabitants. Annie Sullivan herself recounted that “very much of what [she] remember[s] about Tewksbury is indecent, cruel, melancholy…gruesome in the light of grown-up experience…[leaving] her with the conviction that life is primarily cruel and bitter [and the] doubt if life or for that matter eternity is long enough to erase the terrors and ugly blots scored upon [her] mind during those dismal years from 8 to 14” (Lash 10, 13). She understood that her only escape from the pitiful state of the other inhabitants of Tewksbury was education, and saw her chance when the State Board of Charities sent a commission to investigate the abominable conditions of the poorhouse. She ventured to tell the chairperson of the Board of her wish to go to school, and was sent to the Perkins Institution for the Blind on October 7, 1880, where she worked industriously to acquire the education that she yearned for. Being familiar with loneliness, despair, and hopelessness, Annie Sullivan struggled to free herself from these dire straits through education, and in time became the bringer of hope and light to a child locked within a cell of darkness, silence, and despair.
The time that Annie Sullivan spent at the Perkins Institution further prepared her for her success with the education of Helen Keller. Annie was a headstrong individual by nature, and her quick temper was fed by additional fuel during her years at Tewksbury, where there was no maternal figure to care for her, and she had to basically fend for herself, and at Perkins Institution, where she found to her chagrin that her childhood at Tewksbury had left her ignorant about the fundamentals of schoolwork, making her a source of ridicule for insensitive teachers and fellow students. Sullivan responded to those mockeries by “[transmuting] incidents of inner shame, humiliation, [and] mortification…into public defiance, hostility, impudence and discontent” (Lash 23). What she truly needed at this stage to help her discard the negative influences of Tewksbury and allow her to grow healthily in spirit as well as in mind was care and compassion, not ridicule. Therefore, Sullivan shunned authority and craved for understanding; the more that the domineering teachers attempted to restrain her, the harder she rebelled, but she accepted the advice and admonitions of well-meaning and sympathetic teachers. These experiences taught her that patience and compassion were the keys to developing a positive relationship between a teacher and student and led to her development as a nurturing, not a domineering, figure for Helen Keller.
HELEN'S LIFE PRIOR TO THE ARRIVAL OF ANNIE
Helen Keller suffered from a situation that was very similar to her teacher’s. She was born on June 27, 1880, and every indication pointed to the fact that she would be an intelligent and promising child; however, both her parents and Helen were robbed of this hope when she was only nineteen months old by an illness that left her blind and deaf. Deprived of her senses by an illness like her teacher, Helen was luckier in that she still had her family with her and did not have to endure the horrors of the poorhouse and fend for herself, ordeals that marred her teacher’s childhood.
However, the mere presence
of a family did not prevent Helen from feeling the loneliness and desperation
of an individual locked in an isolated world that was not only dark but
also silent. There was no way for Helen to witness or fully comprehend
what was going on about her, and she felt like “a Phantom living in a world
that was no-world” (Keller 8). Furthermore, she was not free from
insensitive opinions of relatives, who not only withheld their support,
but even went so far as to suggest that she was mentally deficient.
One such person was her uncle, who told her mother that “’you really ought
to put that child away…she is mentally defective, and it is not pleasant
to see her about’” (Harrity & Martin 29). This view was representative
of the feelings of some family members who considered Helen an eyesore
because she had to struggle in her surroundings; they did not have any
compassion or admiration for her efforts to understand a world that was
so foreign to her, and wished to deal with what they thought to be “unpleasant”
by sending her out of their sight.
Although her parents did not succumb to the suggestions that they send their child away, they did not know how to communicate with or help her; hence, they gave in to Helen’s every demand without teaching her proper manners or anything else. Her father did not know how to deal with Helen’s tantrums, which were getting more violent and frequent as she grew older, and her mother was at a loss as to how to maintain a loving and trusting relationship with her daughter. Though she loved Helen, she sometimes saw her child as a source of guilt—“She had adored the darling Helen who could speak and hear, but after her daughter’s defects were confirmed medically, she experienced a bewildering array of emotions: hurt pride, guilt, sadness, and often a wish for the child’s death” (Herrmann 12). The adorable infant who had seemed so promising since birth now became a disappointment to her mother, who told a friend that “’fate ambushed the joy in [her] heart when [she] was twenty-four and left it dead” (Herrmann 12). In light of these conflicting feelings within her parents, it was no wonder then that though they provided and cared for their daughter, the most fundamental characteristics of a healthy parent-child relationship was missing—that of complete understanding, support, and unconditional acceptance of the defects of one’s child.
The understanding that Helen
Keller desperately needed for her to be able to break forth from the barrier
that her handicaps created did not enter her life until the appearance
of Annie Sullivan on March 3, 1887, which she considered to be her “soul’s
birthday” (Einhorn 11). Unlike Helen’s parents and relatives, Sullivan
had personally experienced what it felt like to be cut off from the rest
of the world and could identify with her student’s fear of loneliness and
the need to vent her frustrations against an incomprehensible black and
silent world: “Endowed with an alert and active mind, seven-year-old
Helen Keller had a great urge to know but no way to satisfy it, causing
her to strike out at life with all the fury in her little body” (Harrity
& Martin 8).
With her prior experiences at the Perkins Institution where she herself yielded to the goodwill, but not the authority, of her teachers, Annie Sullivan recognized that to gradually chip away the wall that Helen had built around herself required compassion and empathy. However, she was also aware that to give to her wayward pupil’s every demand like her parents was definitely not the key to developing a trusting relationship between both teacher and student. Therefore, Sullivan approached Helen with an understanding but firm attitude, whereby she sought to teach her student through patience and perseverance.
An example of Sullivan’s tenderness and firmness would be when she first attempted to teach Helen her table manners. Being used to doing everything her own way, Helen never learned or cared for the proper behavior at mealtimes. She would take whatever food she wanted from whoever’s plate that she felt like at the moment, and the idea of using a spoon and a napkin was entirely foreign to this willful child. Instead of pretending that everything was fine like Helen’s parents, “who were…willing to give in for the sake of peace” (Keller 249) or reprimanding the child by hitting her like Sullivan’s own father would have done, Annie patiently and repeatedly thwarted her student’s attempts to take food from other people’s plates and put a spoon in Helen’s hand regardless of the number of times that the latter threw the utensil to the floor. Sullivan resolutely ate her own breakfast and pretended to ignore her pupil’s tantrums, refusing to allow the latter to touch her food without a spoon. She emerged from this time-consuming battle of wills the winner, and applied this same determination to whatever tasks she attempted to teach her rebellious student.
Like Annie Sullivan, Helen
eventually succumbed to her teacher’s loving efforts to guide her away
from her world of darkness and temper tantrums. Since her tantrums
was a way of venting her frustrations at a silent and dark world and a
means of imploring a world that she could not hear or see for understanding
and compassion, these instances of unruly behavior began to gradually give
way to demonstrations of an intense eagerness for knowledge once a crack
appeared in Helen’s cell of loneliness. This break in Helen’s prison
occurred on April 5, 1887, which she deemed to be her “soul’s dawn” (Einhorn
12). On this momentous day for Helen and her teacher, she finally
realized that the words that Sullivan had repeatedly spelled into her hands
corresponded to certain objects and found a means of communication with
a world hitherto sealed away from her due to her blindness and deafness.
The first word for which she drew this connection was water, which became
a symbol of a rebirth for Helen: “’That living word awakened my soul,
gave it light, hope, joy, set it free” (Einhorn 12).
Annie Sullivan did not stop at simply showing Helen her table manners and helping her realize that words have meanings, but studied various subjects diligently to prepare herself to be a better teacher for Helen. Disregarding her doctors’ warnings about the amount of rest and care that her impaired eyes needed, Annie Sullivan pored over many books to seek the knowledge that she felt would be beneficial for her enthusiastic student despite the harm that these long hours of reading was doing to her eyes. This sacrifice on Annie’s part earned Helen’s deep gratitude and remorse when the latter learned of the pressure that these readings were having on her teacher’s eyes: “As I recall how Teacher gave her sight in unnumbered ways to benefit me, I think of her eyes as ‘dainty Ariels,’ spirits too delicate to act out her exacting, incessant commands, and often tormented through no fault of her own” (Keller 58). Sullivan was no longer only a teacher to Helen, but a lifetime companion as well as a selfless and giving maternal figure, who hoped to create a meaningful life for her pupil despite Helen’s handicaps, a life that was denied to her personally, due to basically almost the same reasons combined with poverty. By working with Helen, Annie Sullivan not only gave her student a chance at rebirth, but also experienced a “second chance” herself since she was reliving her childhood and the chances that she missed through Helen: “in a sense [Annie] and Helen were children growing up together” (Keller 58).
The work and hope of Annie
Sullivan to help the unfortunate did not stop with her pupil, Helen Keller,
who carried the wish of assisting the blind and deaf to a far grander level.
Just as Annie Sullivan had been a maternal figure for her, Helen, in a
sense, became a mother figure and an advocate for the blind and deaf.
She gave speeches and wrote articles in the hopes of raising funds to create
better opportunities for others who had been afflicted with the same handicap
as herself; she saw herself as an “international beggar” (Einhorn 72),
who continually asked others to take action and do something to improve
the lot of their fellow humans who were less fortunate than themselves.
Believing strongly that the blind and deaf should be treated like normal
people, “she helped institute several social reforms, including persuading
employers to hire blind and deaf people…fought for changes in the workplace…[that
would make] jobs for blind people easier to obtain…[and] persuaded the
Work Progress Administration to establish talking books for the blind”
Helen Keller’s work was not limited to creating and finding better opportunities for the blind and deaf, but extended to the prevention of the handicap. It was known that blindness could be caused in newly born infants by an infection known as ophthalmia neonatorum, which was preventable but never “[brought] to the attention of the public” (Keller 79), due to its association with venereal disease. Keller helped to break away the wall of silence surrounding this much-avoided issue when she wrote an article “for the Ladies Home Journal attacking venereal disease in parents as a prime cause of blindness in children…the first time the subject had ever been mentioned in a national magazine” (Harrity & Martin 100). Keller had made the campaign for assisting the lot of the blind and deaf, and broaching concerns about the causes of the disease, her vocation.
Both Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller were nurturing maternal figures; the former filled that role for the latter, who in turn succeeded that position for the blind and deaf. Although Sullivan is not related to Helen Keller by blood, the former became her student’s closest family, companion, and friend throughout the Helen’s life. The care and understanding that the lost and temperamental Helen needed were provided by Annie Sullivan, who was able to accept her student as no other family member did before her appearance, because Annie suffered under similar circumstances as a child and could identify with her pupil. She did not have to face the disappointment and guilt that Mrs. Keller had to endure and, consequently, could help Helen as an unfortunate individual extending her assistance to a fellow sufferer. Annie was able to overlook Helen’s handicaps and tantrums and saw beyond these outward qualities a frightened and isolated child, who was imprisoned in a void of darkness and emptiness where no light or sound ever entered, desperately trying to break free from her bonds. Her attempts to bring liberation and light to this frightened child proved to be successful, for Helen came to accept her handicaps herself and even praised “God for [her] handicaps for through them [she had] found [her]self, [her] work, and [her] God” (Herrmann 7). Just as Sullivan was a bringer of hope and light into young Helen Keller’s world, the latter became likewise a messenger of optimism for the blind and deaf.
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But Seen, Deaf But Heard.
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