Learning to read and write
Annie Sullivan arrived at Helen Keller’s house on March 5, 1887, a day Keller would forever remember as ‘my soul’s birthday’.
Sullivan immediately began to teach Helen to communicate by spelling words into her hand, beginning with “d-o-l-l” for the doll that she had brought Keller as a present.
Keller was frustrated, at first, because she did not understand that every object had a word uniquely identifying it.
When Sullivan was trying to teach Keller the word for “mug”, Keller became so frustrated she broke the mug. But soon she began imitating Sullivan’s hand gestures. “I did not know that I was spelling a word or even that words existed,” Keller remembered. “I was simply making my fingers go in monkey-like imitation.”
Keller’s breakthrough in communication came the next month when she realized that the motions her teacher was making on the palm of her hand, while running cool water over her other hand, symbolized the idea of “water”.
Writing in her autobiography, The Story of My Life, Keller recalled the moment: “I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten — a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that w-a-t-e-r meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. The living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, set it free!”
Keller then nearly exhausted Sullivan, demanding the names of all the other familiar objects in her world.
Learning to speak
When Helen was ten years old, she came to know about a girl in Norway, deaf and blind like her, but who had been taught to speak. This fired her passion to speak like any other ordinary human being.
Anne took her to Sarah Fuller, then the principal of Horace Mann School for Deaf. Sarah would place Helen’s hand on her lips, tongue, face and throat while she was talking. Helen would feel the positions of Sarah’s lips and tongue and vibrations of her throat. She would place her other hand on her own lips and tongue and would try to imitate the positions of Sarah’s lips and tongue.
This was exhausting but she uttered her first sentence “It’s too warm here” within a few days. Though she learned to speak, she was never able speak with clarity.
Below are some excerpts from her autobiography The Story of My Life where she describes how she learned the abstract concepts.
I remember the morning that I first asked the meaning of the word, “love.” This was before I knew many words. I had found a few early violets in the garden and brought them to my teacher. She tried to kiss me: but at that time I did not like to have any one kiss me except my mother. Miss Sullivan put her arm gently round me and spelled into my hand, “I love Helen.”
“What is love?” I asked.
She drew me closer to her and said, “It is here,” pointing to my heart, whose beats I was conscious of for the first time. Her words puzzled me very much because I did not then understand anything unless I touched it.
I smelt the violets in her hand and asked, half in words, half in signs, a question which meant, “Is love the sweetness of flowers?”
“No,” said my teacher.
Again I thought. The warm sun was shining on us.
“Is this not love?” I asked, pointing in the direction from which the heat came. “Is this not love?”
It seemed to me that there could be nothing more beautiful than the sun, whose warmth makes all things grow. But Miss Sullivan shook her head, and I was greatly puzzled and disappointed. I thought it strange that my teacher could not show me love.
A day or two afterward I was stringing beads of different sizes in symmetrical groups—two large beads, three small ones, and so on. I had made many mistakes, and Miss Sullivan had pointed them out again and again with gentle patience. Finally I noticed a very obvious error in the sequence and for an instant I concentrated my attention on the lesson and tried to think how I should have arranged the beads. Miss Sullivan touched my forehead and spelled with decided emphasis, “Think.”
In a flash I knew that the word was the name of the process that was going on in my head. This was my first conscious perception of an abstract idea.
For a long time I was still—I was not thinking of the beads in my lap, but trying to find a meaning for “love” in the light of this new idea. The sun had been under a cloud all day, and there had been brief showers; but suddenly the sun broke forth in all its southern splendour.
Again I asked my teacher, “Is this not love?”
“Love is something like the clouds that were in the sky before the sun came out,” she replied. Then in simpler words than these, which at that time I could not have understood, she explained: “You cannot touch the clouds, you know; but you feel the rain and know how glad the flowers and the thirsty earth are to have it after a hot day. You cannot touch love either; but you feel the sweetness that it pours into everything. Without love you would not be happy or want to play.”
The beautiful truth burst upon my mind—I felt that there were invisible lines stretched between my spirit and the spirits of others.
From the beginning of my education Miss Sullivan made it a practice to speak to me as she would speak to any hearing child; the only difference was that she spelled the sentences into my hand instead of speaking them. If I did not know the words and idioms necessary to express my thoughts she supplied them, even suggesting conversation when I was unable to keep up my end of the dialogue.
This process was continued for several years; for the deaf child does not learn in a month, or even in two or three years, the numberless idioms and expressions used in the simplest daily intercourse. The little hearing child learns these from constant repetition and imitation. The conversation he hears in his home stimulates his mind and suggests topics and calls forth the spontaneous expression of his own thoughts.
This natural exchange of ideas is denied to the deaf child. My teacher, realizing this, determined to supply the kinds of stimulus I lacked. This she did by repeating to me as far as possible, verbatim, what she heard, and by showing me how I could take part in the conversation. But it was a long time before I ventured to take the initiative, and still longer before I could find something appropriate to say at the right time.