Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan

[1999] “Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am.” These are the words of Helen Keller, whose legendary triumph is the subject of William Gibson’s play, The Miracle Worker.

The story of how Keller first gained awareness of her own existence, and, later, much more, is the story of one of the 20th century’s most remarkable pair of women. Blinded during infancy with neither bone nor air conduction in either ear, Keller’s mother often wished the child dead. Annie Sullivan was hired as her tutor.

Sullivan, whose own childhood had been miserable, began teaching at the Keller home in Tuscumbia, Alabama, in 1887. Undaunted by her impetuous pupil, she immediately applied a fiercely rational education. Sullivan granted the unruly girl no reprieve from instruction. As Helen Keller began to make progress, Sullivan conducted lessons outdoors – in a field or beside the Tennessee River – permitting Keller to fully feel that the world was hers to master.

“It now remains my pleasant task,” Sullivan wrote early in the process, “to direct and mold the beautiful intelligence that is beginning to stir in the child-soul.” Their relationship was forged: the convergence of raw, free will and the ruthless discipline of reason. The result was a transformation from wild child to an exceptionally intelligent girl.

Frederick Tilney, a neurology professor from Columbia University sent to observe Keller, later wrote: “From the very beginning of her instruction this ingenious teacher has arranged every experience so that it might have real pedagogic value, whether in play, in work or in rest, as well as in all other social activities. Helen Keller has been taught to capitalize every opportunity for learning from each impression entering her sensorium.”

Keller could distinguish between roses and wildflowers, she knew when storms were coming – detecting a concentration in her nostrils – and she learned to speak. She mastered French without a textbook or a Braille dictionary, graduated from Radcliffe, became a writer and lecturer and she was able to grasp abstractions. When friends told her that happiness awaited her after life, she instantly asked: “How do you know, if you have not been dead?” The efficacy of Keller’s mind was matched only by her charm. An admirer observed: “Ask her the color of your coat, she will feel it and say ‘black.’ If it happens to be blue, and you tell her so triumphantly, she is likely to answer, ‘Thank you. I am glad you know. Why did you ask me?’”

As Keller gained fame, Sullivan rejected distortions of her student’s deeds: “Helen Keller is neither a ‘phenomenal child,’ ‘an intellectual prodigy,’ nor an ‘extraordinary genius’ but simply a very bright and lovely child, unmarred by self consciousness or any taint of evil. Every thought mirrored on her beautiful face, beaming with intelligence and affection, is a fresh joy, and this workaday world seems fairer and brighter because she is in it.”

Their relationship lasted a lifetime, bearing the indelible mark of instructor and pupil.

“My teacher is so near to me that I scarcely think of myself apart from her,” Keller wrote in her classic autobiography, The Story of My Life. “I feel that her being is inseparable from my own, and that the footsteps of my life are in hers.” Keller called Sullivan “Teacher” for the rest of her days.

Sullivan taught Keller how to think. That Helen Keller chose to think was the proper reward for both.

Originally published in the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1999.

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