Read Part I on Helen Keller’s background here.
Annie Sullivan (1866-1936)
Anne (Annie) Sullivan was the daughter of Irish immigrants, forced from Ireland during the potato famine. At the age of five, Annie contracted trachoma which severely affected her eyesight. Her mother lost two children in infancy before she also died young. Annie, then only eight years old, was left in charge of the younger children. Two years later, Annie and her brother were sent to the “poor house,” an orphanage called Tewksbury Alms House. Within months of arriving, her brother died, leaving Annie alone and desperate. Annie, stuck in an overcrowded home, barely survived.
However, as she succumbed to trachoma before she could read or write or was taught to sew, Annie was left in a precarious position. A fellow Alms House lodger reported to Annie about the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston. Annie immediately wanted to attend. How could she make this happen? In reading Annie’s biography, she writes of knowing a benefactor was to visit the Alms House. When the benefactor arrived, Annie chased after a her, clung to her dress, and demanded to be sent to the School of the Blind. She cried, “I want to learn to read. I want to go to school.”
Annie gained a place at the Perkins School for the Blind. At this time the Perkins Institute was the home for daughters of wealthy farmers or merchants. Annie lacked her peers’ wealthy background and could not even write her name. Being different and lacking social graces, Annie was humiliated. However, some teachers took her under their care. Annie’s quick temper and sharp tongue caused almost expulsion from the school on more than one occasion. It was only through teachers’ intercessions that she remained.
However, on graduation day, it was Annie who gave the valedictorian address.
Now more questions began. Where would she work? Where would she live? She had no home to which she could return. What would happen to her?
It was at this time Captain Arthur and his wife Katherine Keller were searching for a tutor for their blind and deaf daughter. Their search led them to the Perkins School for the Blind.
Here the two lives intersected, to become intertwined for the next fifty years.
Next post: Annie and Helen begin their lessons.