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The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller

 

Part III:  Chapter III. Education

 

Introduction

 

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It is now sixty-five years since Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe knew that he had made his way through Laura Bridgman's fingers to her intelligence. The names of Laura Bridgman and Helen Keller will always be linked together, and it is necessary to understand what Dr. Howe did for his pupil before one comes to an account of Miss Sullivan's work. For Dr. Howe is the great pioneer on whose work that of Miss Sullivan and other teachers of the deaf-blind immediately depends.

 

Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe was born in Boston, November 10, 1801, and died in Boston, January 9, 1876. He was a great philanthropist, interested especially in the education of all defectives, the feeble-minded, the blind, and the deaf. Far in advance of his time he advocated many public measures for the relief of the poor and the diseased, for which he was laughed at then, but which have since been put into practice. As head of the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston, he heard of Laura Bridgman and had her brought to the Institution on October 4, 1837.

 

Laura Bridgman was born at Hanover, New Hampshire, December 21, 1829; so she was almost eight years old when Dr. Howe began his experiments with her. At the age of twenty-six months scarlet fever left her without sight or hearing. She also lost her sense of smell and taste. Dr. Howe was an experimental scientist and had in him the spirit of New England transcendentalism with its large faith and large charities. Science and faith together led him to try to make his way into the soul which he believed was born in Laura Bridgman as in every other human being. His plan was to teach Laura by means of raised types. He pasted raised labels on objects and made her fit the labels to the objects and the objects to the labels. When she had learned in this way to associate raised words with things, in much the same manner, he says, as a dog learns tricks, he began to resolve the words into their letter elements and to teach her to put together "k-e-y," "c-a-p." His success convinced him that language can be conveyed through type to the mind of the blind-deaf child, who, before education, is in the state of the baby who has not learned to prattle; indeed, is in a much worse state, for the brain has grown in years without natural nourishment.

 

After Laura's education had progressed for two months with the use only of raised letters, Dr. Howe sent one of his teachers to learn the manual alphabet from a deaf-mute. She taught it to Laura, and from that time on the manual alphabet was the means of communicating with her.

   

After the first year or two Dr. Howe did not teach Laura Bridgman himself, but gave her over to other teachers, who under his direction carried on the work of teaching her language.

 

Too much cannot be said in praise of Dr. Howe's work. As an investigator he kept always the scientist's attitude. He never forgot to keep his records of Laura Bridgman in the fashion of one who works in a laboratory. The result is, his records of her are systematic and careful. From a scientific standpoint it is unfortunate that it was impossible to keep such a complete record of Helen Keller's development. This in itself is a great comment on the difference between Laura Bridgman and Helen Keller. Laura always remained an object of curious study. Helen Keller became so rapidly a distinctive personality that she kept her teacher in a breathless race to meet the needs of her pupil, with no time or strength to make a scientific study.

 

In some ways this is unfortunate. Miss Sullivan knew at the beginning that Helen Keller would be more interesting and successful than Laura Bridgman, and she expresses in one of her letters the need of keeping notes. But neither temperament nor training allowed her to make her pupil the object of any experiment or observation which did not help in the child's development. As soon as a thing was done, a definite goal passed, the teacher did not always look back and describe the way she had come. The explanation of the fact was unimportant compared to the fact itself and the need of hurrying on. There are two other reasons why Miss Sullivan's records are incomplete. It has always been a severe tax on her eyes to write, and she was early discouraged from publishing data by the inaccurate use made of what she at first supplied.

 

When she first wrote from Tuscumbia to Mr. Michael Anagnos, Dr. Howes son-in-law and his successor as Director of the Perkins Institution, about her work with her pupil, the Boston papers began at once to publish exaggerated accounts of Helen Keller. Miss Sullivan protested. In a letter dated April 10, 1887, only five weeks after she went to Helen Keller, she wrote to a friend:

 

"-- sent me a Boston Herald containing a stupid article about Helen. How perfectly absurd to say that Helen is 'already talking fluently!' Why, one might just as well say that a two-year-old child converses fluently when he says 'apple give,' or 'baby walk go.' I suppose if you included his screaming, crowing, whimpering, grunting, squalling, with occasional kicks, in his conversation, it might be regarded as fluent--even eloquent. Then it is amusing to read of the elaborate preparation I underwent to fit me for the great task my friends entrusted to me. I am sorry that preparation didn't include spelling, it would have saved me such a lot of trouble."

 

On March 4, 1888, she writes in a letter:

 

"Indeed, I am heartily glad that I don't know all that is being said and written about Helen and myself. I assure you I know quite enough. Nearly every mail brings some absurd statement, printed or written. The truth is not wonderful enough to suit the newspapers; so they enlarge upon it and invent ridiculous embellishments. One paper has Helen demonstrating problems in geometry by means of her playing blocks. I expect to hear next that she has written a treatise on the origin and future of the planets!"

 

In December, 1887, appeared the first report of the Director of the Perkins Institution, which deals with Helen Keller. For this report Miss Sullivan prepared, in reluctant compliance with the request of Mr. Anagnos, an account of her work. This with the extracts from her letters, scattered through the report, is the first valid source of information about Helen Keller. Of this report Miss Sullivan wrote in a letter dated October 30, 1887:

 

"Have you seen the paper I wrote for the 'report'? Mr. Anagnos was delighted with it. He says Helen's progress has been 'a triumphal march from the beginning,' and he has many flattering things to say about her teacher. I think he is inclined to exaggerate; at all events, his language is too glowing, and simple facts are set forth in such a manner that they bewilder one. Doubtless the work of the past few months does seem like a triumphal march to him; but then people seldom see the halting and painful steps by which the most insignificant success is achieved."

 

As Mr. Anagnos was the head of a great institution, what he said had much more effect than the facts in Miss Sullivan's account on which he based his statements. The newspapers caught Mr. Anagnos's spirit and exaggerated a hundred-fold. In a year after she first went to Helen Keller, Miss Sullivan found herself and her pupil the centre of a stupendous fiction. Then the educators all over the world said their say and for the most part did not help matters. There grew up a mass of controversial matter which it is amusing to read now. Teachers of the deaf proved a priori that what Miss Sullivan had done could not be, and some discredit was reflected on her statements, because they were surrounded by the vague eloquence of Mr. Anagnos. Thus the story of Helen Keller, incredible when told with moderation, had the misfortune to be heralded by exaggerated announcements, and naturally met either an ignorant credulity or an incredulous hostility.

 

In November, 1888, another report of the Perkins Institution appeared with a second paper by Miss Sullivan, and then nothing official was published until November, 1891, when Mr. Anagnos issued the last Perkins Institution report containing anything about Helen Keller. For this report Miss Sullivan wrote the fullest and largest account she has ever written; and in this report appeared the "Frost King," which is discussed fully in a later chapter. Then the controversy waxed fiercer than ever.

 

Finding that other people seemed to know so much more about Helen Keller than she did, Miss Sullivan kept silent and has been silent for ten years, except for her paper in the first volta Bureau Souvenir of Helen Keller and the paper which, at Dr. Bell's request, she prepared in 1894 for the meeting at Chautauqua of the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf. When Dr. Bell and others tell her, what is certainly true from an impersonal point of view, that she owes it to the cause of education to write what she knows, she answers very properly that she owes all her time and all her energies to her pupil.

 

Although Miss Sullivan is still rather amused than distressed when some one, even one of her friends, makes mistakes in published articles about her and Miss Keller, still she sees that Miss Keller's book should include all the information that the teacher could at present furnish. So she consented to the publication of extracts from letters which she wrote during the first year of her work with her pupil. These letters were written to Mrs. Sophia C. Hopkins, the only person to whom Miss Sullivan ever wrote freely. Mrs. Hopkins has been a matron at the Perkins Institution for twenty years, and during the time that Miss Sullivan was a pupil there she was like a mother to her. In these letters we have an almost weekly record of Miss Sullivan's work. Some of the details she had forgotten, as she grew more and more to generalize. Many people have thought that any attempt to find the principles in her method would be nothing but a later theory superimposed on Miss Sullivan's work. But it is evident that in these letters she was making a clear analysis of what she was doing. She was her own critic, and in spite of her later declaration, made with her modest carelessness, that she followed no particular method, she was very clearly learning from her task and phrasing at the time principles of education of unique value not only in the teaching of the deaf but in the teaching of all children. The extracts from her letters and reports form an important contribution to pedagogy, and more than justify the opinion of Dr. Daniel C. Gilman, who wrote in 1893, when he was President of Johns Hopkins University:

 

"I have just read... your most interesting account of the various steps you have taken in the education of your wonderful pupil, and I hope you will allow me to express my admiration for the wisdom that has guided your methods and the affection which has inspired your labours."

 

Miss Anne Mansfield Sullivan was born at Springfield, Massachusetts. Very early in her life she became almost totally blind, and she entered the Perkins Institution October 7, 1880, when she was fourteen years old. Later her sight was partially restored.

 

Mr. Anagnos says in his report of 1887: "She was obliged to begin her education at the lowest and most elementary point; but she showed from the very start that she had in herself the force and capacity which insure success.... She has finally reached the goal for which she strove so bravely. The golden words that Dr. Howe uttered and the example that he left passed into her thoughts and heart and helped her on the road to usefulness; and now she stands by his side as his worthy successor in one of the most cherished branches of his work.... Miss Sullivan's talents are of the highest order."

 

In 1886 she graduated from the Perkins Institution. When Captain Keller applied to the director for a teacher, Mr. Anagnos recommended her. The only time she had to prepare herself for the work with her pupil was from August, 1886, when Captain Keller wrote, to February, 1887. During this time she read Dr. Howe's reports. She was further aided by the fact that during the six years of her school life she had lived in the house with Laura Bridgman. It was Dr. Howe who, by his work with Laura Bridgman, made Miss Sullivan's work possible: but it was Miss Sullivan who discovered the way to teach language to the deaf-blind.

 

It must be remembered that Miss Sullivan had to solve her problems unaided by previous experience or the assistance of any other teacher. During the first year of her work with Helen Keller, in which she taught her pupil language, they were in Tuscumbia; and when they came North and visited the Perkins Institution, Helen Keller was never a regular student there or subject to the discipline of the Institution. The impression that Miss Sullivan educated Helen Keller "under the direction of Mr. Anagnos" is erroneous. In the three years during which at various times Miss Keller and Miss Sullivan were guests of the Perkins Institution, the teachers there did not help Miss Sullivan, and Mr. Anagnos did not even use the manual alphabet with facility as a means of communication. Mr. Anagnos wrote in the report of the Perkins Institution, dated November 27, 1888: "At my urgent request, Helen, accompanied by her mother and her teacher, came to the North in the last week of May, and spent several months with us as our guests.... We gladly allowed her to use freely our library of embossed books, our collection of stuffed animals, sea-shells, models of flowers and plants, and the rest of our apparatus for instructing the blind through the sense of touch. I do not doubt that she derived from them much pleasure and not a little profit. But whether Helen stays at home or makes visits in other parts of the country, her education is always under the immediate direction and exclusive control of her teacher. No one interferes with Miss Sullivan's plans, or shares in her tasks. She has been allowed entire freedom in the choice of means and methods for carrying on her great work; and, as we can judge by the results, she has made a most judicious and discreet use of this privilege. What the little pupil has thus far accomplished is widely known, and her wonderful attainments command general admiration; but only those who are familiar with the particulars of the grand achievement know that the credit is largely due to the intelligence, wisdom, sagacity, unremitting perseverance and unbending will of the instructress, who rescued the child from the depths of everlasting night and stillness, and watched over the different phases of her mental and moral development with maternal solicitude and enthusiastic devotion."

   

 

Here follow in order Miss Sullivan's letters and the most important passages from the reports. I have omitted from each succeeding report what has already been explained and does not need to be repeated. For the ease of the reader I have, with Miss Sullivan's consent, made the extracts run together continuously and supplied words of connection and the resulting necessary changes in syntax, and Miss Sullivan has made slight changes in the phrasing of her reports and also of her letters, which were carelessly written. I have also italicized a few important passages. Some of her opinions Miss Sullivan would like to enlarge and revise. That remains for her to do at another time. At present we have here the fullest record that has been published. The first letter is dated March 6, 1887, three days after her arrival in Tuscumbia.

   

 


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