A day with Helen Keller (1906)

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Helen Keller graduates from Radcliffe 1904
Helen Keller upon her graduation from Radcliffe in 1904

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, some what hollow, crooning voice which she herself has never heard.

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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.

Helen-Keller-1906-illustrationAs 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.

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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, in tent 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.

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