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The Story of My Life, by Helen Keller

 

Part III:  Chapter III. Education

 

1891 and 1892

 

During the next two years neither Mr. Anagnos, who was in Europe for a year, nor Miss Sullivan wrote anything about Helen Keller for publication. In 1892 appeared the Perkins Institution report for 1891, containing a full account of Helen Keller, including many of her letters, exercises, and compositions. As some of the letters and the story of the "Frost King" are published here, there is no need of printing any more samples of Helen Keller's writing during the third, fourth and fifth years of her education. It was the first two years that counted. From Miss Sullivan's part of this report I give her most important comments and such biographical matter as does not appear elsewhere in the present volume.

 

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These extracts Mr. Anagnos took from Miss Sullivan's notes and memoranda.

 

One day, while her pony and her donkey were standing side by side, Helen went from one to the other, examining them closely. At last she paused with her hand upon Neddy's head, and addressed him thus: "Yes, dear Neddy, it is true that you are not as beautiful as Black Beauty. Your body is not so handsomely formed, and there is no proud look in your face, and your neck does not arch, Besides, your long ears make you look a little funny. Of course, you cannot help it, and I love you just as well as if you were the most beautiful creature in the world."

 

Helen has been greatly interested in the story of "Black Beauty." To show how quickly she perceives and associates ideas, I will give an instance which all who have read the book will be able to appreciate. I was reading the following paragraph to her:

 

"The horse was an old, worn-out chestnut, with an ill-kept coat, and bones that showed plainly through it; the knees knuckled over, and the forelegs were very unsteady. I had been eating some hay, and the wind rolled a little lock of it that way, and the poor creature put out her long, thin neck and picked it up, and then turned round and looked about for more. There was a hopeless look in the dull eye that I could not help noticing, and then, as I was thinking where I had seen that horse before, she looked full at me and said, 'Black Beauty, is that you?'"

   

At this point Helen pressed my hand to stop me. She was sobbing convulsively. "It was poor Ginger," was all she could say at first. Later, when she was able to talk about it, she said: "Poor Ginger! The words made a distinct picture in my mind. I could see the way Ginger looked; all her beauty gone, her beautiful arched neck drooping, all the spirit gone out of her flashing eyes, all the playfulness gone out of her manner. Oh, how terrible it was! I never knew before that there could be such a change in anything. There were very few spots of sunshine in poor Ginger's life, and the sadnesses were so many!" After a moment she added, mournfully, "I fear some people's lives are just like Ginger's."

 

This morning Helen was reading for the first time Bryant's poem, "Oh, mother of a mighty race!" I said to her, "Tell me, when you have read the poem through, who you think the mother is." When she came to the line, "There's freedom at thy gates, and rest," she exclaimed: "It means America! The gate, I suppose, is New York City, and Freedom is the great statue of Liberty." After she had read "The Battlefield," by the same author, I asked her which verse she thought was the most beautiful. She replied, "I like this verse best:

 

'Truth crushed to earth shall rise again;

The eternal years of God are hers;

But Error, wounded, writhes with pain,

And dies among his worshipers.'"

 

She is at once transported into the midst of the events of a story. She rejoices when justice wins, she is sad when virtue lies low, and her face glows with admiration and reverence when heroic deeds are described. She even enters into the spirit of battle; she says, "I think it is right for men to fight against wrongs and tyrants."

 

Here begins Miss Sullivan's connected account in the report of 1891:

 

During the past three years Helen has continued to make rapid progress in the acquisition of language. She has one advantage over ordinary children, that nothing from without distracts her attention from her studies.

 

But this advantage involves a corresponding disadvantage, the danger of unduly severe mental application. Her mind is so constituted that she is in a state of feverish unrest while conscious that there is something that she does not comprehend. I have never known her to be willing to leave a lesson when she felt that there was anything in it which she did not understand. If I suggest her leaving a problem in arithmetic until the next day, she answers, "I think it will make my mind stronger to do it now."

 

A few evenings ago we were discussing the tariff. Helen wanted me to tell her about it. I said: "No. You cannot understand it yet." She was quiet for a moment, and then asked, with spirit: "How do you know that I cannot understand? I have a good mind! You must remember, dear teacher, that Greek parents were very particular with their children, and they used to let them listen to wise words, and I think they understood some of them." I have found it best not to tell her that she cannot understand, because she is almost certain to become excited.

 

Not long ago I tried to show her how to build a tower with her blocks. As the design was somewhat complicated, the slightest jar made the structure fall. After a time I became discouraged, and told her I was afraid she could not make it stand, but that I would build it for her; but she did not approve of this plan. She was determined to build the tower herself; and for nearly three hours she worked away, patiently gathering up the blocks whenever they fell, and beginning over again, until at last her perseverance was crowned with success. The tower stood complete in every part.

 

Until October, 1889, I had not deemed it best to confine Helen to any regular and systematic course of study. For the first two years of her intellectual life she was like a child in a strange country, where everything was new and perplexing; and, until she gained a knowledge of language, it was not possible to give her a definite course of instruction.

 

Moreover, Helen's inquisitiveness was so great during these years that it would have interfered with her progress in the acquisition of language, if a consideration of the questions which were constantly occurring to her had been deferred until the completion of a lesson. In all probability she would have forgotten the question, and a good opportunity to explain something of real interest to her would have been lost. Therefore it has always seemed best to me to teach anything whenever my pupil needed to know it, whether it had any bearing on the projected lesson or not, her inquiries have often led us far away from the subject under immediate consideration.

 

Since October, 1889, her work has been more regular and has included arithmetic, geography, zoology, botany and reading.

 

She has made considerable progress in the study of arithmetic. She readily explains the processes of multiplication, addition, subtraction, and division, and seems to understand the operations. She has nearly finished Colburn's mental arithmetic, her last work being in improper fractions. She has also done some good work in written arithmetic. Her mind works so rapidly, that it often happens, that when I give her an example she will give me the correct answer before I have time to write out the question. She pays little attention to the language used in stating a problem, and seldom stops to ask the meaning of unknown words or phrases until she is ready to explain her work. Once, when a question puzzled her very much, I suggested that we take a walk and then perhaps she would understand it. She shook her head decidedly, and said: "My enemies would think I was running away. I must stay and conquer them now," and she did.

 

The intellectual improvement which Helen has made in the past two years is shown more clearly in her greater command of language and in her ability to recognize nicer shades of meaning in the use of words, than in any other branch of her education.

 

Not a day passes that she does not learn many new words, nor are these merely the names of tangible and sensible objects. For instance, she one day wished to know the meaning of the following words: PHENOMENON, COMPRISE, ENERGY, REPRODUCTION, EXTRAORDINARY, PERPETUAL and MYSTERY. Some of these words have successive steps of meaning, beginning with what is simple and leading on to what is abstract. It would have been a hopeless task to make Helen comprehend the more abstruse meanings of the word MYSTERY, but she understood readily that it signified something hidden or concealed, and when she makes greater progress she will grasp its more abstruse meaning as easily as she now does the simpler signification. In investigating any subject there must occur at the beginning words and phrases which cannot be adequately understood until the pupil has made considerable advancement; yet I have thought it best to go on giving my pupil simple definitions, thinking that, although these may be somewhat vague and provisional, they will come to one another's assistance, and that what is obscure to-day will be plain to-morrow.

 

I regard my pupil as a free and active being, whose own spontaneous impulses must be my surest guide. I have always talked to Helen exactly as I would talk to a seeing and hearing child, and I have insisted that other people should do the same. Whenever any one asks me if she will understand this or that word I always reply: "Never mind whether she understands each separate word of a sentence or not. She will guess the meanings of the new words from their connection with others which are already intelligible to her."

 

In selecting books for Helen to read, I have never chosen them with reference to her deafness and blindness. She always reads such books as seeing and hearing children of her age read and enjoy. Of course, in the beginning it was necessary that the things described should be familiar and interesting, and the English pure and simple. I remember distinctly when she first attempted to read a little story. She had learned the printed letters, and for some time had amused herself by making simple sentences, using slips on which the words were printed in raised letters; but these sentences had no special relation to one another. One morning we caught a mouse, and it occurred to me, with a live mouse and a live cat to stimulate her interest, that I might arrange some sentences in such a way as to form a little story, and thus give her a new conception of the use of language. So I put the following sentences in the frame, and gave it to Helen: "The cat is on the box. A mouse is in the box. The cat can see the mouse. The cat would like to eat the mouse. Do not let the cat get the mouse. The cat can have some milk, and the mouse can have some cake." The word THE she did not know, and of course she wished it explained. At that stage of her advancement it would have been impossible to explain its use, and so I did not try, but moved her finger on to the next word, which she recognized with a bright smile. Then, as I put her hand upon puss sitting on the box, she made a little exclamation of surprise, and the rest of the sentence became perfectly clear to her. When she had read the words of the second sentence, I showed her that there really was a mouse in the box. She then moved her finger to the next line with an expression of eager interest. "The cat can see the mouse." Here I made the cat look at the mouse, and let Helen feel the cat. The expression of the little girl's countenance showed that she was perplexed. I called her attention to the following line, and, although she knew only the three words, CAT, EAT and MOUSE, she caught the idea. She pulled the cat away and put her on the floor, at the same time covering the box with the frame. When she read, "Do not let the cat get the mouse!" she recognized the negation in the sentence, and seemed to know that the cat must not get the mouse. GET and LET were new words. She was familiar with the words of the last sentence, and was delighted when allowed to act them out. By signs she made me understand that she wished another story, and I gave her a book containing very short stories, written in the most elementary style. She ran her fingers along the lines, finding the words she knew and guessing at the meaning of others, in a way that would convince the most conservative of educators that a little deaf child, if given the opportunity, will learn to read as easily and naturally as ordinary children.

 

I am convinced that Helen's use of English is due largely to her familiarity with books. She often reads for two or three hours in succession, and then lays aside her book reluctantly. One day as we left the library I noticed that she appeared more serious than usual, and I asked the cause. "I am thinking how much wiser we always are when we leave here than we are when we come," was her reply.

 

When asked why she loved books so much, she once replied: "Because they tell me so much that is interesting about things I cannot see, and they are never tired or troubled like people. They tell me over and over what I want to know."

 

While reading from Dickens's "Child's History of England," we came to the sentence, "Still the spirit of the Britons was not broken." I asked what she thought that meant. She replied, "I think it means that the brave Britons were not discouraged because the Romans had won so many battles, and they wished all the more to drive them away." It would not have been possible for her to define the words in this sentence; and yet she had caught the author's meaning, and was able to give it in her own words. The next lines are still more idiomatic, "When Suetonius left the country, they fell upon his troops and retook the island of Anglesea." Here is her interpretation of the sentence: "It means that when the Roman general had gone away, the Britons began to fight again; and because the Roman soldiers had no general to tell them what to do, they were overcome by the Britons and lost the island they had captured."

 

She prefers intellectual to manual occupations, and is not so fond of fancy work as many of the blind children are; yet she is eager to join them in whatever they are doing. She has learned to use the Caligraph typewriter, and writes very correctly, but not rapidly as yet, having had less than a month's practice.

 

More than two years ago a cousin taught her the telegraph alphabet by making the dots and dashes on the back of her hand with his finger. Whenever she meets any one who is familiar with this system, she is delighted to use it in conversation. I have found it a convenient medium of communicating with Helen when she is at some distance from me, for it enables me to talk with her by tapping upon the floor with my foot. She feels the vibrations and understands what is said to her.

 

It was hoped that one so peculiarly endowed by nature as Helen, would, if left entirely to her own resources, throw some light upon such psychological questions as were not exhaustively investigated by Dr. Howe; but their hopes were not to be realized. In the case of Helen, as in that of Laura Bridgman, disappointment was inevitable. It is impossible to isolate a child in the midst of society, so that he shall not be influenced by the beliefs of those with whom he associates. In Helen's case such an end could not have been attained without depriving her of that intercourse with others, which is essential to her nature.

 

It must have been evident to those who watched the rapid unfolding of Helen's faculties that it would not be possible to keep her inquisitive spirit for any length of time from reaching out toward the unfathomable mysteries of life. But great care has been taken not to lead her thoughts prematurely to the consideration of subjects which perplex and confuse all minds. Children ask profound questions, but they often receive shallow answers, or, to speak more correctly, they are quieted by such answers.

 

"Were did I come from?" and "Where shall I go when I die?" were questions Helen asked when she was eight years old. But the explanations which she was able to understand at that time did not satisfy, although they forced her to remain silent, until her mind should begin to put forth its higher powers, and generalize from innumerable impressions and ideas which streamed in upon it from books and from her daily experiences. Her mind sought for the cause of things.

 

As her observation of phenomena became more extensive and her vocabulary richer and more subtle, enabling her to express her own conceptions and ideas clearly, and also to comprehend the thoughts and experiences of others, she became acquainted with the limit of human creative power, and perceived that some power, not human, must have created the earth, the sun, and the thousand natural objects with which she was perfectly familiar.

 

Finally she one day demanded a name for the power, the existence of which she had already conceived in her own mind.

 

Through Charles Kingsley's "Greek Heroes" she had become familiar with the beautiful stories of the Greek gods and goddesses, and she must have met with the words GOD, HEAVEN, SOUL, and a great many similar expressions in books.

 

She never asked the meaning of such words, nor made any comment when they occurred; and until February, 1889, no one had ever spoken to her of God. At that time, a dear relative who was also an earnest Christian, tried to tell her about God but, as this lady did not use words suited to the comprehension of the child, they made little impression upon Helen's mind. When I subsequently talked with her she said: "I have something very funny to tell you. A. says God made me and every one out of sand; but it must be a joke. I am made of flesh and blood and bone, am I not?" Here she examined her arm with evident satisfaction, laughing heartily to herself. After a moment she went on: "A. says God is everywhere, and that He is all love; but I do not think a person can be made out of love. Love is only something in our hearts. Then A. said another very comical thing. She says He (meaning God) is my dear father. It made me laugh quite hard, for I know my father is Arthur Keller."

 

I explained to her that she was not yet able to understand what had been told her, and so easily led her to see that it would be better not to talk about such things until she was wiser.

 

She had met with the expression Mother Nature in the course of her reading, and for a long time she was in the habit of ascribing to Mother Nature whatever she felt to be beyond the power of man to accomplish. She would say, when speaking of the growth of a plant, "Mother Nature sends the sunshine and the rain to make the trees and the grass and the flowers grow." The following extract from my notes will show what were her ideas at this time:

 

Helen seemed a little serious after supper, and Mrs. H. asked her of what she was thinking. "I am thinking how very busy dear Mother Nature is in the springtime," she replied. When asked why, she answered: "Because she has so many children to take care of. She is the mother of everything; the flowers and trees and winds."

 

"How does Mother Nature take care of the flowers?" I asked.

 

"She sends the sunshine and rain to make them grow," Helen replied; and after a moment she added, "I think the sunshine is Nature's warm smile, and the raindrops are her tears."

 

Later she said: "I do not know if Mother Nature made me. I think my mother got me from heaven, but I do not know where that place is. I know that daisies and pansies come from seeds which have been put in the ground; but children do not grow out of the ground, I am sure. I have never seen a plant-child! But I cannot imagine who made Mother Nature, can you? I love the beautiful spring, because the budding trees and the blossoming flowers and the tender green leaves fill my heart with joy. I must go now to see my garden. The daisies and the pansies will think I have forgotten them."

 

After May, 1890, it was evident to me that she had reached a point where it was impossible to keep from her the religious beliefs held by those with whom she was in daily contact. She almost overwhelmed me with inquiries which were the natural outgrowth of her quickened intelligence.

 

Early in May she wrote on her tablet the following list of questions:

 

"I wish to write about things I do not understand. Who made the earth and the seas, and everything? What makes the sun hot? Where was I before I came to mother? I know that plants grow from seeds which are in the ground, but I am sure people do not grow that way. I never saw a child-plant. Little birds and chickens come out of eggs. I have seen them. What was the egg before it was an egg? Why does not the earth fall, it is so very large and heavy? Tell me something that Father Nature does. May I read the book called the Bible? Please tell your little pupil many things when you have much time."

 

Can any one doubt after reading these questions that the child who was capable of asking them was also capable of understanding at least their elementary answers? She could not, of course, have grasped such abstractions as a complete answer to her questions would involve; but one's whole life is nothing more than a continual advance in the comprehension of the meaning and scope of such ideas.

 

Throughout Helen's education I have invariably assumed that she can understand whatever it is desirable for her to know. Unless there had been in Helen's mind some such intellectual process as the questions indicate, any explanation of them would have been unintelligible to her. Without that degree of mental development and activity which perceives the necessity of superhuman creative power, no explanation of natural phenomena is possible.

 

After she had succeeded in formulating the ideas which had been slowly growing in her mind, they seemed suddenly to absorb all her thoughts, and she became impatient to have everything explained. As we were passing a large globe a short time after she had written the questions, she stopped before it and asked, "Who made the REAL world?" I replied, "No one knows how the earth, the sun, and all the worlds which we call stars came to be; but I will tell you how wise men have tried to account for their origin, and to interpret the great and mysterious forces of nature."

 

She knew that the Greeks had many gods to whom they ascribed various powers, because they believed that the sun, the lightning, and a hundred other natural forces, were independent and superhuman powers. But after a great deal of thought and study, I told her, men came to believe that all forces were manifestations of one power, and to that power they gave the name GOD.

 

She was very still for a few minutes, evidently thinking earnestly. She then asked, "Who made God?" I was compelled to evade her question, for I could not explain to her the mystery of a self-existent being. Indeed, many of her eager questions would have puzzled a far wiser person than I am. Here are some of them: "What did God make the new worlds out of?" "Where did He get the soil, and the water, and the seeds, and the first animals?" "Where is God?" "Did you ever see God?" I told her that God was everywhere, and that she must not think of Him as a person, but as the life, the mind, the soul of everything. She interrupted me: "Everything does not have life. The rocks have not life, and they cannot think." It is often necessary to remind her that there are infinitely many things that the wisest people in the world cannot explain.

 

No creed or dogma has been taught to Helen, nor has any effort been made to force religious beliefs upon her attention. Being fully aware of my own incompetence to give her any adequate explanations of the mysteries which underlie the names of God, soul, and immortality, I have always felt obliged, by a sense of duty to my pupil, to say as little as possible about spiritual matters. The Rt. Rev. Phillips Brooks has explained to her in a beautiful way the fatherhood of God.

 

She has not as yet been allowed to read the Bible, because I do not see how she can do so at present without getting a very erroneous conception of the attributes of God. I have already told her in simple language of the beautiful and helpful life of Jesus, and of His cruel death. The narrative affected her greatly when first she listened to it.

 

When she referred to our conversation again, it was to ask, "Why did not Jesus go away, so that His enemies could not find Him?" She thought the miracles of Jesus very strange. When told that Jesus walked on the sea to meet His disciples, she said, decidedly, "It does not mean WALKED, it means SWAM." When told of the instance in which Jesus raised the dead, she was much perplexed, saying, "I did not know life could come back into the dead body!"

 

One day she said, sadly: "I am blind and deaf. That is why I cannot see God." I taught her the word INVISIBLE, and told her we could not see God with our eyes, because He was a spirit; but that when our hearts were full of goodness and gentleness, then we saw Him because then we were more like Him.

 

At another time she asked, "What is a soul?" "No one knows what the soul is like," I replied; "but we know that it is not the body, and it is that part of us which thinks and loves and hopes, and which Christian people believe will live on after the body is dead." I then asked her, "Can you think of your soul as separate from your body?" "Oh, yes!" she replied; "because last hour I was thinking very hard of Mr. Anagnos, and then my mind,"--then changing the word--"my soul was in Athens, but my body was here in the study." At this moment another thought seemed to flash through her mind, and she added, "But Mr. Anagnos did not speak to my soul." I explained to her that the soul, too, is invisible, or in other words, that it is without apparent form. "But if I write what my soul thinks," she said, "then it will be visible, and the words will be its body."

 

A long time ago Helen said to me, "I would like to live sixteen hundred years." When asked if she would not like to live ALWAYS in a beautiful country called heaven, her first question was, "Where is heaven?" I was obliged to confess that I did not know, but suggested that it might be on one of the stars. A moment after she said, "Will you please go first and tell me all about it?" and then she added, "Tuscumbia is a very beautiful little town." It was more than a year before she alluded to the subject again, and when she did return to it, her questions were numerous and persistent. She asked: "Where is heaven, and what is it like? Why cannot we know as much about heaven as we do about foreign countries?" I told her in very simple language that there may be many places called heaven, but that essentially it was a condition--the fulfilment of the heart's desire, the satisfaction of its wants; and that heaven existed wherever RIGHT was acknowledged, believed in, and loved.

 

She shrinks from the thought of death with evident dismay. Recently, on being shown a deer which had been killed by her brother, she was greatly distressed, and asked sorrowfully, "Why must everything die, even the fleet-footed deer?" At another time she asked, "Do you not think we would be very much happier always, if we did not have to die?" I said, "No; because, if there were no death, our world would soon be so crowded with living creatures that it would be impossible for any of them to live comfortably." "But," said Helen, quickly, "I think God could make some more worlds as well as He made this one."

 

When friends have told her of the great happiness which awaits her in another life, she instantly asked: "How do you know, if you have not been dead?"

 

The literal sense in which she sometimes takes common words and idioms shows how necessary it is that we should make sure that she receives their correct meaning. When told recently that Hungarians were born musicians, she asked in surprise, "Do they sing when they are born?" When her friend added that some of the pupils he had seen in Budapest had more than one hundred tunes in their heads, she said, laughing, "I think their heads must be very noisy." She sees the ridiculous quickly, and, instead of being seriously troubled by metaphorical language, she is often amused at her own too literal conception of its meaning.

 

Having been told that the soul was without form, she was much perplexed at David's words, "He leadeth my soul." "Has it feet? Can it walk? Is it blind?" she asked; for in her mind the idea of being led was associated with blindness.

 

Of all the subjects which perplex and trouble Helen, none distresses her so much as the knowledge of the existence of evil, and of the suffering which results from it. For a long time it was possible to keep this knowledge from her; and it will always be comparatively easy to prevent her from coming in personal contact with vice and wickedness. The fact that sin exists, and that great misery results from it, dawned gradually upon her mind as she understood more and more clearly the lives and experiences of those around her. The necessity of laws and penalties had to be explained to her. She found it very hard to reconcile the presence of evil in the world with the idea of God which had been presented to her mind.

 

One day she asked, "Does God take care of us all the time?" She was answered in the affirmative. "Then why did He let little sister fall this morning, and hurt her head so badly?" Another time she was asking about the power and goodness of God. She had been told of a terrible storm at sea, in which several lives were lost, and she asked, "Why did not God save the people if He can do all things?"

 

Surrounded by loving friends and the gentlest influences, as Helen had always been, she has, from the earliest stage of her intellectual enlightenment, willingly done right. She knows with unerring instinct what is right, and does it joyously. She does not think of one wrong act as harmless, of another as of no consequence, and of another as not intended. To her pure soul all evil is equally unlovely.

 

These passages from the paper Miss Sullivan prepared for the meeting at Chautauqua, in July, 1894, of the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf, contain her latest written account of her methods.

 

You must not imagine that as soon as Helen grasped the idea that everything had a name she at once became mistress of the treasury of the English language, or that "her mental faculties emerged, full armed, from their then living tomb, as Pallas Athene from the head of Zeus," as one of her enthusiastic admirers would have us believe. At first, the words, phrases and sentences which she used in expressing her thoughts were all reproductions of what we had used in conversation with her, and which her memory had unconsciously retained. And indeed, this is true of the language of all children. Their language is the memory of the language they hear spoken in their homes. Countless repetition of the conversation of daily life has impressed certain words and phrases upon their memories, and when they come to talk themselves, memory supplies the words they lisp. Likewise, the language of educated people is the memory of the language of books.

 

Language grows out of life, out of its needs and experiences. At first my little pupil's mind was all but vacant. She had been living in a world she could not realize. LANGUAGE and KNOWLEDGE are indissolubly connected; they are interdependent. Good work in language presupposes and depends on a real knowledge of things. As soon as Helen grasped the idea that everything had a name, and that by means of the manual alphabet these names could be transmitted from one to another, I proceeded to awaken her further interest in the OBJECTS whose names she learned to spell with such evident joy. I NEVER TAUGHT LANGUAGE FOR THE PURPOSE OF TEACHING IT; but invariably used language as a medium for the communication of THOUGHT; thus the learning of language was COINCIDENT with the acquisition of knowledge. In order to use language intelligently, one must have something to talk ABOUT, and having something to talk about is the result of having had experiences; no amount of language training will enable our little children to use language with ease and fluency unless they have something clearly in their minds which they wish to communicate, or unless we succeed in awakening in them a desire to know what is in the minds of others.

 

At first I did not attempt to confine my pupil to any system. I always tried to find out what interested her most, and made that the starting-point for the new lesson, whether it had any bearing on the lesson I had planned to teach or not. During the first two years of her intellectual life, I required Helen to write very little. In order to write one must have something to write about, and having something to write about requires some mental preparation. The memory must be stored with ideas and the mind must be enriched with knowledge before writing becomes a natural and pleasurable effort. Too often, I think, children are required to write before they have anything to say. Teach them to think and read and talk without self-repression, and they will write because they cannot help it.

 

Helen acquired language by practice and habit rather than by study of rules and definitions. Grammar with its puzzling array of classifications, nomenclatures, and paradigms, was wholly discarded in her education. She learned language by being brought in contact with the LIVING language itself; she was made to deal with it in everyday conversation, and in her books, and to turn it over in a variety of ways until she was able to use it correctly. No doubt I talked much more with my fingers, and more constantly than I should have done with my mouth; for had she possessed the use of sight and hearing, she would have been less dependent on me for entertainment and instruction.

 

I believe every child has hidden away somewhere in his being noble capacities which may be quickened and developed if we go about it in the right way; but we shall never properly develop the higher natures of our little ones while we continue to fill their minds with the so-called rudiments. Mathematics will never make them loving, nor will the accurate knowledge of the size and shape of the world help them to appreciate its beauties. Let us lead them during the first years to find their greatest pleasure in Nature. Let them run in the fields, learn about animals, and observe real things. Children will educate themselves under right conditions. They require guidance and sympathy far more than instruction.

 

I think much of the fluency with which Helen uses language is due to the fact that nearly every impression which she receives comes through the medium of language. But after due allowance has been made for Helen's natural aptitude for acquiring language, and for the advantage resulting from her peculiar environment, I think that we shall still find that the constant companionship of good books has been of supreme importance in her education. It may be true, as some maintain, that language cannot express to us much beyond what we have lived and experienced; but I have always observed that children manifest the greatest delight in the lofty, poetic language which we are too ready to think beyond their comprehension. "This is all you will understand," said a teacher to a class of little children, closing the book which she had been reading to them. "Oh, please read us the rest, even if we won't understand it," they pleaded, delighted with the rhythm, and the beauty which they felt, even though they could not have explained it. It is not necessary that a child should understand every word in a book before he can read with pleasure and profit. Indeed, only such explanations should be given as are really essential. Helen drank in language which she at first could not understand, and it remained in her mind until needed, when it fitted itself naturally and easily into her conversation and compositions. Indeed, it is maintained by some that she reads too much, that a great deal of originative force is dissipated in the enjoyment of books; that when she might see and say things for herself, she sees them only through the eyes of others, and says them in their language, but I am convinced that original composition without the preparation of much reading is an impossibility. Helen has had the best and purest models in language constantly presented to her, and her conversation and her writing are unconscious reproductions of what she has read. Reading, I think, should be kept independent of the regular school exercises. Children should be encouraged to read for the pure delight of it. The attitude of the child toward his books should be that of unconscious receptivity. The great works of the imagination ought to become a part of his life, as they were once of the very substance of the men who wrote them. It is true, the more sensitive and imaginative the mind is that receives the thought-pictures and images of literature, the more nicely the finest lines are reproduced. Helen has the vitality of feeling, the freshness and eagerness of interest, and the spiritual insight of the artistic temperament, and naturally she has a more active and intense joy in life, simply as life, and in nature, books, and people than less gifted mortals. Her mind is so filled with the beautiful thoughts and ideals of the great poets that nothing seems commonplace to her; for her imagination colours all life with its own rich hues.

 

There has been much discussion of such of Miss Sullivan's statements and explanations as have been published before. Too much has been written by people who do not know the problems of the deaf at first hand, and I do not care to add much to it. Miss Keller's education, however, is so fundamentally a question of language teaching that it rather includes the problems of the deaf than limits itself to the deaf alone. Teachers can draw their own conclusions. For the majority of readers, who will not approach Miss Keller's life from the educator's point of view, I will summarize a few principal things in Miss Sullivan's methods.

 

Miss Sullivan has begun where Dr. Howe left off. He invented the instrument, the physical means of working, but the teaching of language is quite another thing from the mechanical means by which language may be taught. By experiment, by studying other children, Miss Sullivan came upon the practical way of teaching language by the natural method. It was for this "natural method" that Dr. Howe was groping, but he never got to this idea, that a deaf child should not be taught each word separately by definition, but should be given language by endless repetition of language which it does not understand. And this is Miss Sullivan's great discovery. All day long in their play-time and work-time Miss Sullivan kept spelling into her pupil's hand, and by that Helen Keller absorbed words, just as the child in the cradle absorbs words by hearing thousands of them before he uses one and by associating the words with the occasion of their utterance. Thus he learns that words name things and actions and feelings. Now, that is the first principle in Miss Sullivan's method, one that had practical results, and one which, so far as I can discover, had never been put in practice in the education of a deaf child, not to say a deaf-blind child, until Miss Sullivan tried it with Helen Keller. And the principle had never been formulated clearly until Miss Sullivan wrote her letters.

 

The second principle in her method (the numerical order is, of course, arbitrary) is never to talk to the child about things distasteful or wearisome to him. In the first deaf school Miss Sullivan ever visited, the teacher was busy at the blackboard telling the children by written words something they did not want to know, while they were crowding round their visitor with wide-awake curiosity, showing there were a thousand things they did want to know. Why not, says Miss Sullivan, make a language lesson out of what they were interested in?

 

Akin to this idea of talking to the child about what interests him, is the principle never to silence a child who asks questions, but to answer the questions as truly as possible; for, says Miss Sullivan, the question is the door to the child's mind. Miss Sullivan never needlessly belittled her ideas or expressions to suit the supposed state of the child's intelligence. She urged every one to speak to Helen naturally, to give her full sentences and intelligent ideas, never minding whether Helen understood or not. Thus Miss Sullivan knew what so many people do not understand, that after the first rudimentary definitions of HAT, CUP, GO, SIT, the unit of language, as the child learns it, is the sentence, which is also the unit of language in our adult experience. We do not take in a sentence word by word, but as a whole. It is the proposition, something predicated about something, that conveys an idea. True, single words do suggest and express ideas; the child may say simply "mamma" when he means "Where is mamma?" but he learns the expression of the ideas that relate to mamma--he learns language--by hearing complete sentences. And though Miss Sullivan did not force grammatical completeness upon the first finger-lispings of her pupil, yet when she herself repeated Helen's sentence, "mamma milk," she filled out the construction, completed the child's ellipsis and said, "Mamma will bring Helen some milk."

 

Thus Miss Sullivan was working out a natural method, which is so simple, so lacking in artificial system, that her method seems rather to be a destruction of method. It is doubtful if we should have heard of Helen Keller if Miss Sullivan had not been where there were other children. By watching them, she learned to treat her pupil as nearly as possible like an ordinary child.

 

The manual alphabet was not the only means of presenting words to Helen Keller's fingers. Books supplemented, perhaps equaled in importance the manual alphabet, as a means of teaching language. Helen sat poring over them before she could read, not at first for the story, but to find words she knew; and the definition of new words which is implied in their context, in their position with reference to words known, added to Helen's vocabulary. Books are the storehouse of language, and any child, whether deaf or not, if he has his attention attracted in any way to printed pages, must learn. He learns not by reading what he understands, but by reading and remembering words he does not understand. And though perhaps few children will have as much precocious interest in books as did Helen Keller, yet the natural curiosity of every healthy child may be turned to printed pages, especially if the teacher is clever and plays a word game as Miss Sullivan did. Helen Keller is supposed to have a special aptitude for languages. It is true rather that she has a special aptitude for thinking, and her leaning toward language is due to the fact that language to her meant life. It was not a special subject, like geography or arithmetic, but her way to outward things.

 

When at the age of fourteen she had had but a few lessons in German, she read over the words of "Wilhelm Tell" and managed to get the story. Of grammar she knew nothing and she cared nothing for it. She got the language from the language itself, and this is, next to hearing the language spoken, the way for any one to get a foreign tongue, more vital and, in the end, easier than our schoolroom method of beginning with the grammar. In the same way she played with Latin, learning not only from the lessons her first Latin teacher gave her, but from going over and over the words of a text, a game she played by herself.

 

Mr. John D. Wright, one of her teachers at the Wright-Humason School, says in a letter to me:

 

"Often I found her, when she had a little leisure, sitting in her favourite corner, in a chair whose arms supported the big volume prepared for the blind, and passing her finger slowly over the lines of Moliere's 'Le Medecin Malgre Lui,' chuckling to herself at the comical situations and humorous lines. At that time her actual working vocabulary in French was very small, but by using her judgment, as we laughingly called the mental process, she could guess at the meanings of the words and put the sense together much as a child puzzles out a sliced object. The result was that in a few weeks she and I spent a most hilarious hour one evening while she poured out to me the whole story, dwelling with great gusto on its humour and sparkling wit. It was not a lesson, but only one of her recreations."

 

So Helen Keller's aptitude for language is her whole mental aptitude, turned to language because of its extraordinary value to her.

 

There have been many discussions of the question whether Helen Keller's achievements are due to her natural ability or to the method by which she was taught.

 

It is true that a teacher with ten times Miss Sullivan's genius could not have made a pupil so remarkable as Helen Keller out of a child born dull and mentally deficient. But it is also true that, with ten times her native genius, Helen Keller could not have grown to what she is, if she had not been excellently taught from the very start, and especially at the start. And the fact remains that she was taught by a method of teaching language to the deaf the essential principles of which are clearly expressed in Miss Sullivan's letters, written while she was discovering the method and putting it successfully into practice. And it can be applied by any teacher to any healthy deaf child, and in the broadest interpretation of the principles, can be applied to the teaching of language of all kinds to all children.

 

In the many discussions of this question writers seem to throw us from one horn to another of a dilemma--either a born genius in Helen Keller, or a perfect method in the teacher. Both things may be true at once, and there is another truth which makes the dilemma imperfect. Miss Sullivan is a person of extraordinary power. Her method might not succeed so completely in the hands of any one else. Miss Sullivan's vigorous, original mind has lent much of its vitality to her pupil. If Miss Keller is fond of language and not interested especially in mathematics, it is not surprising to find Miss Sullivan's interests very similar. And this does not mean that Miss Keller is unduly dependent on her teacher. It is told of her that, as a child of eight, when some one tried to interfere with her, she sat sober a few moments, and, when asked what was the trouble, answered, "I am preparing to assert my independence." Such an aggressive personality cannot grow up in mere dependence even under the guidance of a will like Miss Sullivan's. But Miss Sullivan by her "natural aptitude" has done for her pupil much that is not capable of analysis and reduction to principle; she has given the inspiration which is in all close friendship, and which rather develops than limits the powers of either person. Moreover, if Miss Keller is a "marvel of sweetness and goodness," if she has a love "of all things good and beautiful," this implies something about the teacher who has lived with her for sixteen years.

 

There is, then, a good deal that Miss Sullivan has done for Miss Keller which no other teacher can do in just the same way for any one else. To have another Helen Keller there must be another Miss Sullivan. To have another, well-educated deaf and blind child, there need only be another teacher, living under favourable conditions, among plenty of external interests, unseparated from her pupil allowed to have a free hand, and using as many as she needs of the principles which Miss Sullivan has saved her the trouble of finding out for herself, modifying and adding as she finds it necessary; and there must be a pupil in good health, of good native powers, young enough not to have grown beyond recovery in ignorance. Any deaf child or deaf and blind child in good health can be taught. And the one to do it is the parent or the special teacher, not the school. I know that this idea will be vigorously combated by those who conduct schools for the deaf. To be sure, the deaf school is the only thing possible for children educated by the State. But it is evident that precisely what the deaf child needs to be taught is what other children learn before they go to school at all. When Miss Sullivan went out in the barnyard and picked up a little chicken and talked to Helen about it, she was giving a kind of instruction impossible inside four walls, and impossible with more than one pupil at a time.

 

Surely Dr. Howe is wrong when he says, "A teacher cannot be a child." That is just what the teacher of the deaf child must be, a child ready to play and romp, and interested in all childish things.

 

The temptation to discuss, solely in the light of Helen Keller, the whole matter of educating the deaf is a dangerous one, and one which I have not taken particular care to avoid, because my opinions are of no authority and I have merely tried to suggest problems and reinforce some of the main ideas expressed by Miss Sullivan, who is an authority. It is a question whether Helen Keller's success has not led teachers to expect too much of other children, and I know of deaf-blind children who are dragged along by their teachers and friends, and become the subjects of glowing reports, which are pathetically untrue, because one sees behind the reports how the children are tugged at to bring them somewhere near the exaggerated things that are said about them.

 

Let me sum up a few of the elements that made Helen Keller what she is. In the first place she had nineteen months' experience of sight and sound. This meant some mental development. She had inherited vigour of body and mind. She expressed ideas in signs before she learned language. Mrs. Keller writes me that before her illness Helen made signs for everything, and her mother thought this habit the cause of her slowness in learning to speak. After the illness, when they were dependent on signs, Helen's tendency to gesture developed. How far she could receive communications is hard to determine, but she knew much that was going on around her. She recognized that others used their lips; she "saw" her father reading a paper and when he laid it down she sat in his chair and held the paper before her face. Her early rages were an unhappy expression of the natural force of character which instruction was to turn into trained and organized power.

 

It was, then, to a good subject that Miss Sullivan brought her devotion and intelligence, and fearless willingness to experiment. Miss Sullivan's methods were so good that even without the practical result, any one would recognize the truth of the teacher's ideas. Miss Sullivan has in addition a vigorous personality. And finally all the conditions were good for that first nature school, in which the teacher and pupil played together, exploring together and educating themselves, pupil and teacher inseparable.

 

Miss Keller's later education is easy to understand and needs no further explanation than she has given. Those interested may get on application to the Volta Bureau, Washington, D. C., the reports of the teachers who prepared her for college, Mr. Arthur Gilman of the Cambridge School for Young Ladies, and Mr. Merton S. Keith.

   

 


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