Helen Keller: The Story of My Life
The life of Helen Keller, Chapter 1
It is with a kind of fear that I begin to write the history of my life. I have, as it were, a superstitious hesitation in lifting the veil that clings about my childhood like a golden mist. The task of writing an autobiography is a difficult one.
When I try to classify my earliest impressions, I find that fact and fancy look alike across the years that link the past with the present. The woman paints the child’s experiences in her own fantasy.
A few impressions stand out vividly from the first years of my life; but “the shadows of the prison-house are on the rest.” Besides, many of the joys and sorrows of childhood have lost their poignancy; and many incidents of vital importance in my early education have been forgotten in the excitement of great discoveries. In order, therefore, not to be tedious I shall try to present in a series of sketches only the episodes that seem to me to be the most interesting and important.
I was born on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, a little town of northern Alabama.
The family on my father’s side is descended from Caspar Keller, a native of Switzerland, who settled in Maryland. One of my Swiss ancestors was the first teacher of the deaf in Zurich and wrote a book on the subject of their education — rather a singular coincidence; though it is true that there is no king who has not had a slave among his ancestors, and no slave who has not had a king among his.
My grandfather, Caspar Keller’s son, “entered” large tracts of land in Alabama and finally settled there. I have been told that once a year he went from Tuscumbia to Philadelphia on horseback to purchase supplies for the plantation, and my aunt has in her possession many of the letters to his family, which give charming and vivid accounts of these trips.
My Grandmother Keller was a daughter of one of Lafayette’s aides, Alexander Moore, and granddaughter of Alexander Spotswood, an early Colonial Governor of Virginia. She was also second cousin to Robert E. Lee.
My father, Arthur H. Keller, was a captain in the Confederate Army, and my mother, Kate Adams, was his second wife and many years younger. Her grandfather, Benjamin Adams, married Susanna E. Goodhue, and lived in Newbury, Massachusetts, for many years. Their son, Charles Adams, was born in Newburyport, Massachusetts, and moved to Helena, Arkansas.
When the Civil War broke out, he fought on the side of the South and became a brigadier-general. He married Lucy Helen Everett, who belonged to the same family of Everetts as Edward Everett and Dr. Edward Everett Hale. After the war was over the family moved to Memphis, Tennessee.
I lived, up to the time of the illness that deprived me of my sight and hearing, in a tiny house consisting of a large square room and a small one, in which the servant slept. It is a custom in the South to build a small house near the homestead as an annex to be used on occasion.
Such a house my father built after the Civil War, and when he married my mother they went to live in it. It was completely covered with vines, climbing roses and honeysuckles. From the garden, it looked like an arbor. The little porch was hidden from view by a screen of yellow roses and Southern smilax. It was the favorite haunt of hummingbirds and bees.
The Keller homestead, where the family lived, was a few steps from our little rose-bower. It was called “Ivy Green” because the house and the surrounding trees and fences were covered with beautiful English ivy. Its old-fashioned garden was the paradise of my childhood.
Even in the days before my teacher came, I used to feel along the square stiff boxwood hedges, and, guided by the sense of smell would find the first violets and lilies. There, too, after a fit of temper, I went to find comfort and to hide my hot face in the cool leaves and grass.
What joy it was to lose myself in that garden of flowers, to wander happily from spot to spot, until, coming suddenly upon a beautiful vine, I recognized it by its leaves and blossoms, and knew it was the vine which covered the tumble-down summer-house at the farther end of the garden!
Here, also, were trailing clematis, drooping jessamine, and some rare sweet flowers called butterfly lilies, because their fragile petals resemble butterflies’ wings.
But the roses—they were loveliest of all. Never have I found in the greenhouses of the North such heart-satisfying roses as the climbing roses of my southern home. They used to hang in long festoons from our porch, filling the whole air with their fragrance, untainted by any earthy smell; and in the early morning, washed in the dew, they felt so soft, so pure, I could not help wondering if they did not resemble the asphodels of God’s garden.
The beginning of my life was simple and much like every other little life. I came, I saw, I conquered, as the first baby in the family always does. There was the usual amount of discussion as to a name for me. The first baby in the family was not to be lightly named, every one was emphatic about that. My father suggested the name of Mildred Campbell, an ancestor whom he highly esteemed, and he declined to take any further part in the discussion.
My mother solved the problem by giving it as her wish that I should be called after her mother, whose maiden name was Helen Everett. But in the excitement of carrying me to church, my father lost the name on the way, very naturally, since it was one in which he had declined to have a part. When the minister asked him for it, he just remembered that it had been decided to call me after my grandmother, and he gave her name as Helen Adams.
I am told that while I was still in long dresses, I showed many signs of an eager, self-asserting disposition. Everything that I saw other people do I insisted upon imitating. At six months I could pipe out “How d’ye,” and one day I attracted everyone’s attention by saying “Tea, tea, tea” quite plainly. Even after my illness, I remembered one of the words I had learned in these early months. It was the word “water,” and I continued to make some sound for that word after all other speech was lost. I ceased making the sound “wah-wah” only when I learned to spell the word.
They tell me I walked the day I was a year old. My mother had just taken me out of the bathtub and was holding me in her lap, when I was suddenly attracted by the flickering shadows of leaves that danced in the sunlight on the smooth floor. I slipped from my mother’s lap and almost ran toward them. The impulse gone, I fell down and cried for her to take me up in her arms.
These happy days did not last long. One brief spring, musical with the song of robin and mockingbird, one summer rich in fruit and roses, one autumn of gold and crimson sped by and left their gifts at the feet of an eager, delighted child.
Then, in the dreary month of February, came the illness which closed my eyes and ears and plunged me into the unconsciousness of a new-born baby. They called it acute congestion of the stomach and brain. The doctor thought I could not live. Early one morning, however, the fever left me as suddenly and mysteriously as it had come. There was great rejoicing in the family that morning, but no one, not even the doctor, knew that I should never see or hear again.
I fancy I still have confused recollections of that illness. I especially remember the tenderness with which my mother tried to soothe me in my waling hours of fret and pain, and the agony and bewilderment with which I awoke after a tossing half-sleep, and turned my eyes, so dry and hot, to the wall away from the once-loved light, which came to me dim and yet more dim each day.
But, except for these fleeting memories, if, indeed, they be memories, it all seems very unreal, like a nightmare. Gradually I got used to the silence and darkness that surrounded me and forgot that it had ever been different, until she came — my teacher — who was to set my spirit free.
But during the first nineteen months of my life I had caught glimpses of broad, green fields, a luminous sky, trees and flowers which the darkness that followed could not wholly blot out. If we have once seen, “the day is ours, and what the day has shown.”
The life of Helen Keller, Chapter 2
I cannot recall what happened during the first months after my illness. I only know that I sat in my mother’s lap or clung to her dress as she went about her household duties. My hands felt every object and observed every motion, and in this way I learned to know many things.
Soon I felt the need of some communication with others and began to make crude signs. A shake of the head meant “No” and a nod, “Yes,” a pull meant “Come” and a push, “Go.” Was it bread that I wanted? Then I would imitate the acts of cutting the slices and buttering them. If I wanted my mother to make ice-cream for dinner I made the sign for working the freezer and shivered, indicating cold.
My mother, moreover, succeeded in making me understand a good deal. I always knew when she wished me to bring her something, and I would run upstairs or anywhere else she indicated. Indeed, I owe to her loving wisdom all that was bright and good in my long night.
I understood a good deal of what was going on about me. At five I learned to fold and put away the clean clothes when they were brought in from the laundry, and I distinguished my own from the rest. I knew by the way my mother and aunt dressed when they were going out, and I invariably begged to go with them. I was always sent for when there was company, and when the guests took their leave, I waved my hand to them, I think with a vague remembrance of the meaning of the gesture.
One day some gentlemen called on my mother, and I felt the shutting of the front door and other sounds that indicated their arrival. On a sudden thought, I ran upstairs before anyone could stop me, to put on my idea of a company dress. Standing before the mirror, as I had seen others do, I anointed my head with oil and covered my face thickly with powder. Then I pinned a veil over my head so that it covered my face and fell in folds down to my shoulders, and tied an enormous bustle round my small waist, so that it dangled behind, almost meeting the hem of my skirt. Thus attired I went down to help entertain the company.
I do not remember when I first realized that I was different from other people; but I knew it before my teacher came to me. I had noticed that my mother and my friends did not use signs as I did when they wanted anything done, but talked with their mouths. Sometimes I stood between two persons who were conversing and touched their lips. I could not understand, and was vexed. I moved my lips and gesticulated frantically without result. This made me so angry at times that I kicked and screamed until I was exhausted.
I think I knew when I was naughty, for I knew that it hurt Ella, my nurse, to kick her, and when my fit of temper was over I had a feeling akin to regret. But I cannot remember any instance in which this feeling prevented me from repeating the naughtiness when I failed to get what I wanted.
In those days a little colored girl, Martha Washington, the child of our cook, and Belle, an old setter, and a great hunter in her day, were my constant companions. Martha Washington understood my signs, and I seldom had any difficulty in making her do just as I wished. It pleased me to domineer over her, and she generally submitted to my tyranny rather than risk a hand-to-hand encounter.
I was strong, active, indifferent to consequences. I knew my own mind well enough and always had my own way, even if I had to fight tooth and nail for it. We spent a great deal of time in the kitchen, kneading dough balls, helping make ice-cream, grinding coffee, quarreling over the cake-bowl, and feeding the hens and turkeys that swarmed about the kitchen steps. Many of them were so tame that they would eat from my hand and let me feel them.
One big gobbler snatched a tomato from me one day and ran away with it. Inspired, perhaps, by Master Gobbler’s success, we carried off to the woodpile a cake which the cook had just frosted, and ate every bit of it. I was quite ill afterward, and I wonder if retribution also overtook the turkey.
The guinea-fowl likes to hide her nest in out-of-the-way places, and it was one of my greatest delights to hunt for the eggs in the long grass. I could not tell Martha Washington when I wanted to go egg-hunting, but I would double my hands and put them on the ground, which meant something round in the grass, and Martha always understood. When we were fortunate enough to find a nest, I never allowed her to carry the eggs home, making her understand by emphatic signs that she might fall and break them.
The sheds where the corn was stored, the stable where the horses were kept, and the yard where the cows were milked morning and evening were unfailing sources of interest to Martha and me. The milkers would let me keep my hands on the cows while they milked, and I often got well switched by the cow for my curiosity.
The making ready for Christmas was always a delight to me. Of course, I did not know what it was all about, but I enjoyed the pleasant odors that filled the house and the tidbits that were given to Martha Washington and me to keep us quiet. We were sadly in the way, but that did not interfere with our pleasure in the least. They allowed us to grind the spices, pick over the raisins and lick the stirring spoons.
I hung my stocking because the others did; I cannot remember, however, that the ceremony interested me especially, nor did my curiosity cause me to wake before daylight to look for my gifts.
Martha Washington had as great a love of mischief as I. Two little children were seated on the veranda steps one hot July afternoon. One was black as ebony, with little bunches of fuzzy hair tied with shoestrings sticking out all over her head like corkscrews. The other was white, with long golden curls. One child was six years old, the other two or three years older. The younger child was blind—that was I—and the other was Martha Washington.
We were busy cutting out paper dolls; but we soon wearied of this amusement, and after cutting up our shoestrings and clipping all the leaves off the honeysuckle that were within reach, I turned my attention to Martha’s corkscrews. She objected at first, but finally submitted. Thinking that turn and turn about is fair play, she seized the scissors and cut off one of my curls, and would have cut them all off but for my mother’s timely interference.
Belle, our dog, my other companion, was old and lazy and liked to sleep by the open fire rather than to romp with me. I tried hard to teach her my sign language, but she was dull and inattentive. She sometimes started and quivered with excitement, then she became perfectly rigid, as dogs do when they point a bird.
I did not then know why Belle acted in this way; but I knew she was not doing as I wished. This vexed me and the lesson always ended in a one-sided boxing match. Belle would get up, stretch herself lazily, give one or two contemptuous sniffs, go to the opposite side of the hearth and lie down again, and I, wearied and disappointed, went off in search of Martha.
Many incidents of those early years are fixed in my memory, isolated, but clear and distinct, making the sense of that silent, aimless, dayless life all the more intense.
One day I happened to spill water on my apron, and I spread it out to dry before the fire which was flickering on the sitting-room hearth. The apron did not dry quickly enough to suit me, so I drew nearer and threw it right over the hot ashes. The fire leaped into life; the flames encircled me so that in a moment my clothes were blazing. I made a terrified noise that brought Viny, my old nurse, to the rescue. Throwing a blanket over me, she almost suffocated me, but she put out the fire. Except for my hands and hair I was not badly burned.
About this time I found out the use of a key. One morning I locked my mother up in the pantry, where she was obliged to remain three hours, as the servants were in a detached part of the house. She kept pounding on the door, while I sat outside on the porch steps and laughed with glee as I felt the jar of the pounding.
This most naughty prank of mine convinced my parents that I must be taught as soon as possible. After my teacher, Miss Sullivan, came to me, I sought an early opportunity to lock her in her room. I went upstairs with something which my mother made me understand I was to give to Miss Sullivan; but no sooner had I given it to her than I slammed the door to, locked it, and hid the key under the wardrobe in the hall. I could not be induced to tell where the key was. My father was obliged to get a ladder and take Miss Sullivan out through the window—much to my delight. Months after I produced the key.
When I was about five years old we moved from the little vine-covered house to a large new one. The family consisted of my father and mother, two older half-brothers, and, afterward, a little sister, Mildred.
My earliest distinct recollection of my father is making my way through great drifts of newspapers to his side and finding him alone, holding a sheet of paper before his face. I was greatly puzzled to know what he was doing. I imitated this action, even wearing his spectacles, thinking they might help solve the mystery. But I did not find out the secret for several years. Then I learned what those papers were, and that my father edited one of them.
My father was most loving and indulgent, devoted to his home, seldom leaving us, except in the hunting season. He was a great hunter, I have been told, and a celebrated shot. Next to his family, he loved his dogs and gun. His hospitality was great, almost to a fault, and he seldom came home without bringing a guest.
His special pride was the big garden where, it was said, he raised the finest watermelons and strawberries in the county; and to me he brought the first ripe grapes and the choicest berries. I remember his caressing touch as he led me from tree to tree, from vine to vine, and his eager delight in whatever pleased me.
He was a famous story-teller; after I had acquired language he used to spell clumsily into my hand his cleverest anecdotes, and nothing pleased him more than to have me repeat them at an opportune moment.
I was in the North, enjoying the last beautiful days of the summer of 1896, when I heard the news of my father’s death. He had had a short illness, there had been a brief time of acute suffering, then all was over. This was my first great sorrow—my first personal experience with death.
How shall I write of my mother? She is so near to me that it almost seems indelicate to speak of her.
For a long time, I regarded my little sister as an intruder. I knew that I had ceased to be my mother’s only darling, and the thought filled me with jealousy. She sat in my mother’s lap constantly, where I used to sit, and seemed to take up all her care and time. One day something happened which seemed to me to be adding insult to injury.
At that time I had a much-petted, much-abused doll, which I afterward named Nancy. She was, alas, the helpless victim of my outbursts of temper and of affection, so that she became much the worse for wear.
I had dolls which talked, and cried, and opened and shut their eyes; yet I never loved one of them as I loved poor Nancy. She had a cradle, and I often spent an hour or more rocking her. I guarded both doll and cradle with the most jealous care; but once I discovered my little sister sleeping peacefully in the cradle.
At this presumption on the part of one to whom as yet no tie of love bound me I grew angry. I rushed upon the cradle and over-turned it, and the baby might have been killed had my mother not caught her as she fell. Thus it is that when we walk in the valley of twofold solitude we know little of the tender affections that grow out of endearing words and actions and companionship.
But afterward, when I was restored to my human heritage, Mildred and I grew into each other’s hearts, so that we were content to go hand-in-hand wherever caprice led us, although she could not understand my finger language, nor I her childish prattle.
The life of Helen Keller, Chapter 3
Meanwhile the desire to express myself grew. The few signs I used became less and less adequate, and my failures to make myself understood were invariably followed by outbursts of passion. I felt as if invisible hands were holding me, and I made frantic efforts to free myself. I struggled—not that struggling helped matters, but the spirit of resistance was strong within me; I generally broke down in tears and physical exhaustion.
If my mother happened to be near I crept into her arms, too miserable even to remember the cause of the tempest. After awhile the need of some means of communication became so urgent that these outbursts occurred daily, sometimes hourly.
My parents were deeply grieved and perplexed. We lived a long way from any school for the blind or the deaf, and it seemed unlikely that any one would come to such an out-of-the-way place as Tuscumbia to teach a child who was both deaf and blind. Indeed, my friends and relatives sometimes doubted whether I could be taught.
My mother’s only ray of hope came from Dickens’s “American Notes.” She had read his account of Laura Bridgman, and remembered vaguely that she was deaf and blind, yet had been educated. But she also remembered with a hopeless pang that Dr. Howe, who had discovered the way to teach the deaf and blind, had been dead many years. His methods had probably died with him; and if they had not, how was a little girl in a far-off town in Alabama to receive the benefit of them?
When I was about six years old, my father heard of an eminent oculist in Baltimore, who had been successful in many cases that had seemed hopeless. My parents at once determined to take me to Baltimore to see if anything could be done for my eyes.
The journey, which I remember well was very pleasant. I made friends with many people on the train. One lady gave me a box of shells. My father made holes in these so that I could string them, and for a long time, they kept me happy and contented. The conductor, too, was kind. Often when he went his rounds I clung to his coat tails while he collected and punched the tickets. His punch, with which he let me play, was a delightful toy. Curled up in a corner of the seat I amused myself for hours making funny little holes in bits of cardboard.
My aunt made me a big doll out of towels. It was the most comical shapeless thing, this improvised doll, with no nose, mouth, ears or eyes—nothing that even the imagination of a child could convert into a face. Curiously enough, the absence of eyes struck me more than all the other defects put together. I pointed this out to everybody with provoking persistency, but no one seemed equal to the task of providing the doll with eyes.
A bright idea, however, shot into my mind, and the problem was solved. I tumbled off the seat and searched under it until I found my aunt’s cape, which was trimmed with large beads. I pulled two beads off and indicated to her that I wanted her to sew them on my doll. She raised my hand to her eyes in a questioning way, and I nodded energetically. The beads were sewed in the right place and I could not contain myself for joy; but immediately I lost all interest in the doll. During the whole trip I did not have one fit of temper, there were so many things to keep my mind and fingers busy.
When we arrived in Baltimore, Dr. Chisholm received us kindly: but he could do nothing. He said, however, that I could be educated, and advised my father to consult Dr. Alexander Graham Bell of Washington, who would be able to give him information about schools and teachers of deaf or blind children.
Acting on the doctor’s advice, we went immediately to Washington to see Dr. Bell, my father with a sad heart and many misgivings, I wholly unconscious of his anguish, finding pleasure in the excitement of moving from place to place. Child as I was, I at once felt the tenderness and sympathy which endeared Dr. Bell to so many hearts, as his wonderful achievements enlist their admiration.
He held me on his knee while I examined his watch, and he made it strike for me. He understood my signs, and I knew it and loved him at once. But I did not dream that that interview would be the door through which I should pass from darkness into light, from isolation to friendship, companionship, knowledge, love.
Dr. Bell advised my father to write to Mr. Anagnos, director of the Perkins Institution in Boston, the scene of Dr. Howe’s great labours for the blind, and ask him if he had a teacher competent to begin my education. This my father did at once, and in a few weeks there came a kind letter from Mr. Anagnos with the comforting assurance that a teacher had been found. This was in the summer of 1886. But Miss Sullivan did not arrive until the following March.
Thus I came up out of Egypt and stood before Sinai, and a power divine touched my spirit and gave it sight, so that I beheld many wonders. And from the sacred mountain I heard a voice which said, “Knowledge is love and light and vision.”
The life of Helen Keller, Chapter 4
The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me. I am filled with wonder when I consider the immeasurable contrasts between the two lives which it connects. It was the third of March, 1887, three months before I was seven years old.
On the afternoon of that eventful day, I stood on the porch, dumb, expectant. I guessed vaguely from my mother’s signs and from the hurrying to and fro in the house that something unusual was about to happen, so I went to the door and waited on the steps. The afternoon sun penetrated the mass of honeysuckle that covered the porch, and fell on my upturned face.
My fingers lingered almost unconsciously on the familiar leaves and blossoms which had just come forth to greet the sweet southern spring. I did not know what the future held of marvel or surprise for me. Anger and bitterness had preyed upon me continually for weeks and a deep languor had succeeded this passionate struggle.
Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without compass or sounding-line, and had no way of knowing how near the harbor was. “Light! give me light!” was the wordless cry of my soul, and the light of love shone on me in that very hour.
I felt approaching footsteps, I stretched out my hand as I supposed to my mother. Someone 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 my teacher came she led me into her room and gave me a doll. The little blind children at the Perkins Institution had sent it and Laura Bridgman had dressed it; but I did not know this until afterward. When I had played with it a little while, Miss Sullivan slowly spelled into my hand the word “d-o-l-l.” I was at once interested in this finger play and tried to imitate it. When I finally succeeded in making the letters correctly, I was flushed with childish pleasure and pride.
Running downstairs to my mother I held up my hand and made the letters for doll. I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed; I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation. In the days that followed, I learned to spell in this uncomprehending way a great many words, among them pin, hat, cup and a few verbs like sit, stand and walk. But my teacher had been with me several weeks before I understood that everything has a name.
One day, while I was playing with my new doll, Miss Sullivan put my big rag doll into my lap also, spelled “d-o-l-l” and tried to make me understand that “d-o-l-l” applied to both. Earlier in the day we had had a tussle over the words “m-u-g” and “w-a-t-e-r.” Miss Sullivan had tried to impress it upon me that “m-u-g” is mug and that “w-a-t-e-r” is water, but I persisted in confounding the two.
In despair, she had dropped the subject for the time, only to renew it at the first opportunity. I became impatient at her repeated attempts and, seizing the new doll, I dashed it upon the floor. I was keenly delighted when I felt the fragments of the broken doll at my feet.
Neither sorrow nor regret followed my passionate outburst. I had not loved the doll. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness. I felt my teacher sweep the fragments to one side of the hearth, and I had a sense of satisfaction that the cause of my discomfort was removed.
She brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the warm sunshine. This thought, if a wordless sensation may be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure.
We walked down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word water, first slowly, then rapidly.
I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten—a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.
I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every object which I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight that had come to me. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.
I learned a great many new words that day. I do not remember what they all were; but I do know that mother, father, sister, teacher were among them — words that were to make the world blossom for me, “like Aaron’s rod, with flowers.” It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib at the close of that eventful day and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come.
The life of Helen Keller, Chapter 5
I recall many incidents of the summer of 1887 that followed my soul’s sudden awakening. I did nothing but explore with my hands and learn the name of every object that I touched; and the more I handled things and learned their names and uses, the more joyous and confident grew my sense of kinship with the rest of the world.
When the time of daisies and buttercups came Miss Sullivan took me by the hand across the fields, where men were preparing the earth for the seed, to the banks of the Tennessee River, and there, sitting on the warm grass, I had my first lessons in the beneficence of nature.
I learned how the sun and the rain make to grow out of the ground every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, how birds build their nests and live and thrive from land to land, how the squirrel, the deer, the lion and every other creature finds food and shelter. As my knowledge of things grew I felt more and more the delight of the world I was in.
Long before I learned to do a sum in arithmetic or describe the shape of the earth, Miss Sullivan had taught me to find beauty in the fragrant woods, in every blade of grass, and in the curves and dimples of my baby sister’s hand. She linked my earliest thoughts with nature, and made me feel that “birds and flowers and I were happy peers.”
But about this time I had an experience which taught me that nature is not always kind. One day my teacher and I were returning from a long ramble. The morning had been fine, but it was growing warm and sultry when at last we turned our faces homeward. Two or three times we stopped to rest under a tree by the wayside.
Our last halt was under a wild cherry tree a short distance from the house. The shade was grateful, and the tree was so easy to climb that with my teacher’s assistance I was able to scramble to a seat in the branches. It was so cool up in the tree that Miss Sullivan proposed that we have our luncheon there. I promised to keep still while she went to the house to fetch it.
Suddenly a change passed over the tree. All the sun’s warmth left the air. I knew the sky was black, because all the heat, which meant light to me, had died out of the atmosphere. A strange odor came up from the earth. I knew it, it was the odor that always precedes a thunderstorm, and a nameless fear clutched at my heart. I felt absolutely alone, cut off from my friends and the firm earth. The immense, the unknown, enfolded me. I remained still and expectant; a chilling terror crept over me. I longed for my teacher’s return; but above all things, I wanted to get down from that tree.
There was a moment of sinister silence, then a multitudinous stirring of the leaves. A shiver ran through the tree, and the wind sent forth a blast that would have knocked me off had I not clung to the branch with might and main. The tree swayed and strained. The small twigs snapped and fell about me in showers.
A wild impulse to jump seized me, but terror held me fast. I crouched down in the fork of the tree. The branches lashed about me. I felt the intermittent jarring that came now and then, as if something heavy had fallen and the shock had traveled up till it reached the limb I sat on.
It worked my suspense up to the highest point, and just as I was thinking the tree and I should fall together, my teacher seized my hand and helped me down. I clung to her, trembling with joy to feel the earth under my feet once more. I had learned a new lesson — that nature “wages open war against her children, and under softest touch hides treacherous claws.”
After this experience, it was a long time before I climbed another tree. The mere thought filled me with terror. It was the sweet allurement of the mimosa tree in full bloom that finally overcame my fears. One beautiful spring morning when I was alone in the summer-house, reading, I became aware of a wonderful subtle fragrance in the air. I started up and instinctively stretched out my hands. It seemed as if the spirit of spring had passed through the summer-house.
“What is it?” I asked, and the next minute I recognized the odor of the mimosa blossoms. I felt my way to the end of the garden, knowing that the mimosa tree was near the fence, at the turn of the path. Yes, there it was, all quivering in the warm sunshine, its blossom-laden branches almost touching the long grass. Was there ever anything so exquisitely beautiful in the world before! Its delicate blossoms shrank from the slightest earthly touch; it seemed as if a tree of paradise had been transplanted to earth.
I made my way through a shower of petals to the great trunk and for one minute stood irresolute; then, putting my foot in the broad space between the forked branches, I pulled myself up into the tree. I had some difficulty in holding on, for the branches were very large and the bark hurt my hands. But I had a delicious sense that I was doing something unusual and wonderful, so I kept on climbing higher and higher, until I reached a little seat which somebody had built there so long ago that it had grown part of the tree itself.
I sat there for a long, long time, feeling like a fairy on a rosy cloud. After that I spent many happy hours in my tree of paradise, thinking fair thoughts and dreaming bright dreams.
A Day With Helen Keller (1906)
by Joseph Edgar Chamberlin – Evening Star (Washington, DC) April 08, 1906
Sometime 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.
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.
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.
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.
Recognition by touch
This reminds me that, although she recognizes a friend instantly by the shaking of hands, even in the midst of a large crowd, she can easily be deceived by a false and unwonted manner on the part of the person she knows. Since she does not see nor hear, she depends on the personal characteristics, in movement, in the way of presenting or withdrawing a hand, in its special quality of steadiness or tremor, of slowness and lethargy, or quickness and nervousness, all of which we totally overlook unless they are of a marked character. There is no miracle of subtle skill about her perception — it is simply the exercise of the faculties she possesses.
When Helen goes to work, she works. As her face has nothing to do but express her feelings, it continually wears, as she studies, a look of patient and well-contented concentration. When she writes on the typewriter, or on the “Braille” machine — the little apparatus which pricks the points used in the point-writing of the blind — the expression on her face continually changes, reflecting the thoughts that are passing through her mind.
She has the fault of tense concentration — the liability to stick obstinately to an error that she has committed. A blunder, made in the course of close study, has to be educated out of her head by as careful a process as the correct thing is educated in. Ever since her case became well-known to the public, Helen has been visited by a great many more people than have really had a right to see her. To some of these people it has been necessary to refuse her. Nothing else would have been possible. But her natural tendency is to welcome all, from pure friendliness and innate courtesy.
Her happiest moments all day are spent in human intercourse. As she places her fingers to the lips of a visitor, to feel the positions into which the vocal organs are put, and thus to “hear” the words, it is plain that her expectation is fixed, not upon this process, but upon the thoughts that she has reason to anticipate. And as the sentences shape them selves she has a little trick of making quick starts of pleased surprise.
It is exactly the same when the words are read into her hands by those who employ with her the finger language of the deaf. Several people have learned to use this language with her with great rapidity. But she never uses it herself, except when she is alone and meditating, and is formulating ideas by the aid of words. Her answers to the shorthand of the fingers, as well as to the spoken words that she follows with her fingers upon the lips, are always vocal in her half-singing, somewhat hollow, crooning voice which she herself has never heard.
Her greatest, wildest pleasure is swimming. Is it because the water, coming so close to her, infolding her all about, shutting out the things that other people see, dulling the things they hear, pressing upon her sense of touch just as it does upon the senses of all other people, gives her a feeling of possession of the material world from which she is debarred in the open air, and in the hollow houses that are strange and only half known to her. I do not know that this has ever been her conscious thought; but perhaps she feels it. nevertheless. She has never been inclined to discuss her own psychology.
I shall not forget the day when a woman who believes in telepathy, and the Inward Eye, and all such occult notions, came to see Helen This woman had long been seeking the opportunity, and at last fate placed it in her hands. She had a theory to prove. She asked Helen a thousand questions; she tried all kinds of telepathic experiments; she had the people who were present concentrate their thought and will-power on influencing Helen to do things — and absolutely nothing happened. Helen’s courteous, puzzled desire to do what the woman wanted of her, and her innocent attempts to comprehend what it was all about, were deliciously, pathetically absurd.
There is not the first beginning of anything occult in the operations of her mind, though not all of its operations are as yet scientifically explained. All the “second sight” she has is the direct and natural product of a great deal of careful, well-organized, concentration of mind.
Delight in reading
Helen’s most beautiful moments, both as they seem to affect her own state and as they impress her friends, are the half-hours — hours sometimes — at the end of the day, that she passes reading her books, not for the purpose of study, but of inward delight.
A considerable library of books has been put into the raised letters, just for her. That is to say, the interest of certain men of wealth and generosity in her case has led them to appropriate the large sum of money which it takes to put a considerable number of books into the raised letter; but all blind people get the benefit of these publications. When, upon completion just for her, the books take their way to her happy hands, they also go to the libraries of the blind institutions. Thus the fame of her case has resulted in a vast addition to the pleasures and the knowledge of the blind.
As the raised letters intended to be read by the blind are large and embossed, and imprinted upon one side of the paper only, a small book in ordinary print makes a large book in raised letters.
Helen’s library looks like a collection of big scrapbooks. It takes two or three of these to hold “The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table.” Of this book, Helen is especially and unwearyingly fond. When she reads it her face wears an expression that it never wears at any other time. She is always expecting something funny, and when the funny thing comes her half-suppressed laugh always comes too.
She has read the book so many times that she knows it almost by heart, and one who watches her can see the Autocrat’s witty sayings dawning on her face sometime before she gets to them, as her fingers move with startling rapidity along the lines.
In the summer evening, she sits on the veranda, with her big book spread in her lap, reading as the shadows gather, reading on after darkness has fallen — it is all one to her — and smiling, or knitting her brows, or gravely shaking her head, as the images that enter her mind through the tips of her fingers succeed one another, grave and gay, tender, poignant, or absurd.
Sometimes she laughs aloud in her singular, individual way. Around her people sit or pass, intent upon their own affairs. Sometimes they jostle her in their play, and Helen, smiling, extends an inquiring hand to “see” who it is. Children bury their heads in her lap, or come to her and ask for a story; for she is a capital storyteller, repeating, for instance, most of Kingsley’s “Greek Hero Tales” almost word for word as they stand in the book.
All children quickly learn to understand her somewhat indistinct spoken words with readiness, Her goodnight, as she rises at last to go away to bed, is softly spoken; but it is answered with caresses.
Helen’s life has its vexations, its griefs, and its hard passages; but these leave no residuum of bitterness or ill-nature, for some reason that it is hard to fathom. Before she had language, as a child of six and seven, she was cross and violent. She obtained her needs by kicking and striking. She was decidedly impatient if her wishes were not gratified at once. With the dawning of speech, her violent spirit entirely departed. It was as if another soul had come into her body.
Only with speech came memory. The period before her mastery of language is almost a blank — a confused nothing, she has told me. Helen is an embodiment of the word. Her life is chiefly lived in the pure idealism of a world of symbols expressed in written forms.
Sometime, when the psychologist arrives who is capable of examining and illuminating the processes by which her mind has been built up, her case will throw a flood of light on the nature of the human soul.
Video: Helen Keller
Helen Keller’s loss of vision and hearing in infancy made comprehension of the outside world next to impossible—or so it seemed. When teacher Anne Sullivan agreed to work with Keller, that world opened up, especially when Keller comprehended the function and purpose of language.
Keller and Sullivan appear in this newsreel footage from 1928, in which Sullivan explains and then demonstrates the methodology used to teach Keller language, most elements of which are still used worldwide with students who are deaf-blind.
This full-length version is brought to you by the Described and Captioned Media Program (www.dcmp.org) with the permission of the copyright holder, the University of South Carolina Newsreel Library (www.sc.edu/library/newsfilm/).