Exploring the Life & Learning of Helen Keller: Part I

Helen Keller (1880-1968)

Helen Keller’s name and story were once very well known. Whether or not her remarkable journey is shared as much now, I believe it’s worth exploring in terms of education. Over the next few blogs, I wish to expand on Helen, her connections to literacy, and, above all, stressing the importance of why she should be studied now.

Born a normal child of loving parents, Helen’s life looked good until February 1882 when a life-threatening fever enveloped her small body. The fever came and went, but it left Helen in a dark and silent world. She would never see nor hear again.

The term used in our society for such a disability was simply “deaf and dumb;” the words suggesting that the loss of normal communications one was therefore “dumb.”

According to her biography, Helen used crude forms of sign language to communicate her desires with family members: shaking or nodding her head for “yes” or “no;” a pull meant “come with me;” a push meant “go away.”

Helen learned a little about the world. Her closest friend was the daughter of the family’s cook, Martha. Three years older than Helen, the constant companions formed a strong bond. Helen dominated Martha and Martha generally submitted. They played together as Martha became Helen’s eyes and ears in the kitchen or in the yard with the chickens and turkeys.

Helen grew frustrated with her limited world and lack of communication. She threw temper tantrums, sometimes hourly, leaving her exhausted.

From an outsider’s point of view, Helen grew unruly and uncontrollable. Locking her mother in a cupboard (for hours) was a transgression which led the family to search out additional advice.  

Books today are from Helen’s point of view. I’ve read very little of her parent’s story. They sat in utter despair, watching their once “normal” daughter lose all forms of communication and turn into a “raving” nightmare. I can only imagine Helen’s mother's response: “There must be something we can do!”

Helen’s mother had read of Laura Bridgeman, who was also blind and deaf but had learned to communicate. This story gave Helen’s mother hope.

Like many parents today, they, too, began a search.

Off the family went to renown doctors for advice. Firstly to Dr. Chisholm in Baltimore. He advised that Helen was teachable, yet they needed to see another professional—a journey which we, as parents are far too familiar with today. In a desperate search for answers, Chisholm advised seeing Dr. Alexander Graham Bell. On Bell’s counsel, Helen’s father wrote to Dr. Anagnos, the Director of the Perkins Institute, Boston in the search for a competent teacher for Helen.

And much like my son Nicholas’ story, the stars finally aligned.

Check in soon for the next addition of this series, when we meet Helen’s teacher, Anne Sullivan.


Photo: History.com