A day with Helen Keller (1906)

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Helen Keller

A Day With Helen Keller

by Joseph Edgar Chamberlin

Sometimes we dream, or like to imagine, that we are something different from what we are. By a dismal freak of fancy we conceive ourselves, in such a dream, to be black instead of white; or we may see ourselves as a Syrian or Greek or Armenian immigrant just landed at New York, without a word of English, and strange to every thought and impulse of American life. In every such fancied situation we can at least think what we might think or do.

But no one of us can imagine what he would do, or think, or even feel, if he was a being without sight, or hearing, or speech. Our thoughts trans late themselves into terms of seeing and hearing. What we have seen or heard, these things we pile up in our minds until we have what we call a life to look back upon, and out of which to body pictured things of the future for ourselves and others.

Conceive yourself, if you can, getting up some morning in a world which is totally dark, totally silent. You sit on the edge of a bed. You feel it. Something is under your feet that is hard. But what is beyond, what is above, what is about you? You cannot say which way you will go — there is no way.

This is the situation of one of the most habitually cheerful, and one of the cleverest and brightest of human beings: Helen Keller. Day after day I have seen this girl start out on her daily life, and have tried to put myself in her place as she stood before me with her habitual sweet smile on her face — and have never been able to do so. I only know that she images such a world as I image; but she does it through others’ eyes, through others’ ears; and just how she does it no one can tell Helen’s inward mental world is one in which others’ eyes and ears have served her; but when she confronts the physical outside world only her feet and her fingers can be of use to her So she begins with the spot where she is, and feels her way to the place where she wants to go. This involves, as a general thing, following around the outside of the room.

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She is not good at short cuts, though that other deaf-blind person, Tommy Stringer, apparently possesses an absolute sense of direction that enables him to run like a shot across a room, a door yard, or the open space of a barn. Helen seems to arrive at a sense of direction only by reasoning out the relation in space of one known object to another. She follows around the side of the room she knows best of all, locating herself by well-remembered objects on the walls and shelves.

No one comes in blither mood to the table than Helen Keller. Her little helplessnesses there may trouble her inwardly; but she good-naturedly puts them aside as things not worthy of any show of attention from herself or others, thereby unconsciously rebuking the form of egotism by which we constantly ask the pardon of others for our little awkwardnesses and blunders.

Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan
Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan

At the table

She thinks of the table as a place where everybody is having a good time, and seeks to join in this good time at once. Of course the person next her, who is presumably her teacher (once Annie M Sullivan, now Mrs John Albert Macy), or some other friend who communicates with her in the sign language for the deaf made upon her hand, where she feels the positions of the fingers, must act as her ears for what is said; and her own words are in her half-chanted, peculiarly uttered speech.

Of course, she does not know when others are speaking, and depends on the fact being signified to her by her neighbor. She waits with a smile of sweet patience until others are silent. Sometimes, in merry companies, it is a long time before Helen gets the right of way; and when she speaks, what she says is always well worth listening to, and generally starts the table off on another tack with its suggestion.

Yet it is an odd thing that no one’s talk is less introspective, less egotistic, less of the talker, than Helen Keller’s. She is plainly thinking herself into the people around her. What they have been saying and doing, what they are going to do, what their ideas are about this, that or the other thing — this is her ordinary theme. She is fond of relating a story, or repeating a witticism or clever thought that she has read. I have never seen a person who is so invariably pleased by other people’s jokes as Helen Keller.

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Helen has lived more in the world of intellect, or of communicated mental impressions, than in the world of sense. She has been a scholar most of her life so far, and, even more than other attentive and diligent students, has spent much time in the reflected inner world of ideas. But she is no sooner up in the morning than her fingers, her nostrils, and her perception of vibrations begin to open to the world of sense.

She seeks the veranda, her everyday place of promenade, or if some one will conduct her (she never ventures off the veranda alone), the lawn or the field. She touches things, inhales, tosses her head to feel the wind the better in her hair or upon her face, all with as keen a sense of enjoyment as that of any seeing person who revels in a beloved landscape.

She handles the branches of trees and shrubs, and particularly flowers, if she can get at them. Within the range of a somewhat limited botanical acquaintance, she distinguishes the species one from another. She delights in getting hold of living things in this little morning excursion, laughing at the discovery of an insect on a flower.

She has a way of feeling for sounds. She spoke once of “feeling the faint noise of a fly’s wings.” She said at another time: “I felt a soft sound approaching (on the veranda), and I knew the baby was coming.” On the porch one morning — the house was a mile from the railroad, a lake lying between — she said to me: ”The eight-o’clock train is going through.”  —  “How do you know?” —  “I smell the smoke.” I smelled it then myself; but had not noticed it before. It is not that the senses which Helen possesses are keener than ours — it is simply that, having no others, she gives these closer heed.

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