What came first- the chickens or the blog?

Helen Keller – Looking the World Straight in the Face

on August 27, 2013


To go through life blind and deaf.
A mystery illness, thought by doctors today to have been Scarlett Fever or meningitis left Helen Keller blind and deaf, unresponsive, at 18 months. Locked in her own dark world, frustrated at her inability to communicate, Helen’s key to break the silence was her teacher, Anne Sullivan, who came to,live with the Keller family in Alabama when Helen was 7.
In a dramatic struggle, Teacher taught Helen the word “water”; she helped her make the connection between the object and the letters by taking Her out to the water pump, and placing her hand under the spout. While Teacher moved the lever to flush cool water over Helen’s hand, she spelled out the word w-a-t-e-r on Helen’s other hand. She understood and repeated the word in her teacher’s hand. She then pounded the ground, demanding to know its “letter name.” Anne Sullivan followed her, spelling out the word into her hand. Helen moved to other objects with Sullivan in tow. By nightfall, she had learned 30 words. What an exciting day that must have been!
In 1890, Helen began speech classes at a School for the Deaf in Boston. She would toil for 25 years to learn to speak so that others could understand her. From 1894 to 1896, she attended the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf in New York City. There, she worked on improving her communication skills and studied regular academic subjects. In 1896, she attended the Cambridge School for Young Ladies, a preparatory school for women. As her story became known to the general public, she began to meet famous and influential people. One of them was the writer Mark Twain, who was very impressed with her. They became friends. Twain introduced her to his friend Henry H. Rogers, a Standard Oil executive. Rogers was so impressed with her talent, drive and determination that he agreed to pay for her to attend Radcliff College. There, she was accompanied by Sullivan, who sat by her side to interpret lectures and texts.
By this time, Helen had mastered several methods of communication, including touch-lip reading, Braille, speech, typing and finger-spelling. With the help of Sullivan and Sullivan’s future husband, John Macy, Keller wrote her first book, The Story of My Life. It covered her transformation from childhood to 21-year-old college student. Keller graduated, cum laude, from Radcliffe in 1904, at the age of 24. (This book was given to me when I was around 10 years old and which I read many times. Like Laura Ingalls Wilder, Helen Keller is one of my heroes.)
In 1905, Teacher married John Macy, an instructor at Harvard University, a social critic and a prominent socialist. Although the marriage lasted only a few years, Teacher continued to be Keller’s guide and mentor, as relationship that continued for 49 years.
After college, Helen set out to learn more about the world and how she could help improve the lives of others. News of her story spread beyond Massachusetts and New England. She became a well-known celebrity and lecturer by sharing her experiences with audiences, and working on behalf of others living with disabilities. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, she tackled social and political issues, including women’s suffrage, pacifism and birth control. She testified before Congress, strongly advocating to improve the welfare of blind people. In 1915, along with renowned city planner George Kessler, she co-founded Helen Keller International to combat the causes and consequences of blindness and malnutrition. In 1920, she helped found the American Civil Liberties Union. It was during this time that Keller first experienced public prejudice about her disabilities. For most of her life, the press had been overwhelmingly supportive of her, praising her courage and intelligence. But after she expressed her socialist views, some criticized her by calling attention to her disabilities. One newspaper, the Brooklyn Eagle, wrote that her “mistakes sprung out of the manifest limitations of her development.”
In 1936 her beloved Teacher and devoted companion, Anne Sullivan, died. She had experienced health problems for several years and, in 1932, lost her eyesight completely. A young woman named Polly Thompson, who had begun working as their secretary in 1914, now became Helen’s constant companion.
In 1946, Helen was appointed counsellor of international relations for the American Foundation of Overseas Blind. Between 1946 and 1957, she traveled to 35 countries on five continents. In 1955, at age 75, Keller embarked on the longest and most gruelling trip of her life: a 40,000-mile, five-month trek across Asia. Remember, this lady is blind and deaf, and this is in 1955! Through her many speeches and appearances, she brought inspiration and encouragement to millions of people.
Including the words quoted at the start of this blog. How wonderful that though sightless, she encourages, in fact almost orders us to “look the world straight in the face”, “hold your head high”. For those starting new schools, heading off to college or even starting new jobs at this time, Helen would say – take the world head on. Don’t let others see your weaknesses or insecurities. You have nothing to be afraid of or ashamed of. The world is yours for the taking. If I can do it, you can too.
And equally to any teachers or homeschoolers reading this today – never give up on a child, you too can help them unlock the mysteries of the world and empower them to see beyond their own struggles and struggles and to hold their heads high.

On a lighter note, in what has turned out to be a blog post of epic proportions, here are some of Helen’s own words, relating her experiences of childhood, and in particular, time spent feeding hens with her friend Martha Washington. I love that blind Helen did not trust Martha to carry the eggs back to the kitchen, lest she, Martha fall and drop them!….

In those days a little coloured girl, Martha Washington, the child of our cook, and Belle, an old setter, and a great hunter in her day, were my constant companions. Martha Washington understood my signs, and I seldom had any difficulty in making her do just as I wished. It pleased me to domineer over her, and she generally submitted to my tyranny rather than risk a hand-to-hand encounter. I was strong, active, indifferent to consequences. I knew my own mind well enough and always had my own way, even if I had to fight tooth and nail for it. We spent a great deal of time in the kitchen, kneading dough balls, helping make ice-cream, grinding coffee, quarreling over the cake-bowl, and feeding the hens and turkeys that swarmed about the kitchen steps. Many of them were so tame that they would eat from my hand and let me feel them. One big gobbler snatched a tomato from me one day and ran away with it. Inspired, perhaps, by Master Gobbler’s success, we carried off to the woodpile a cake which the cook had just frosted, and ate every bit of it. I was quite ill afterward, and I wonder if retribution also overtook the turkey.

The guinea-fowl likes to hide her nest in out-of-the-way places, and it was one of my greatest delights to hunt for the eggs in the long grass. I could not tell Martha Washington when I wanted to go egg-hunting, but I would double my hands and put them on the ground, which meant something round in the grass, and Martha always understood. When we were fortunate enough to find a nest I never allowed her to carry the eggs home, making her understand by emphatic signs that she might fall and break them.


How I love these two photographs, at the beginning and near the end of their 49 year bond of trust, learning and friendship.


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