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Helen Keller, 1880-1968: Out of a World of Darkness and Silence, She Brought Hope to Millions of People

Helen Keller with John F. Kennedy in 1961
Helen Keller with John F. Kennedy in 1961

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: I'm Shirley Griffith.

RAY FREEMAN: And I'm Ray Freeman. Every week we tell about a person who was important in the history of the United States.

This week we tell about Helen Keller. She was blind and deaf but she became a famous writer and teacher.


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: The name Helen Keller has had special meaning for millions of people in all parts of the world. She could not see or hear. Yet Helen Keller was able to do so much with her days and years. Her success gave others hope. Helen Keller was born June twenty-seventh, eighteen eighty in a small town in northern Alabama. Her father, Arthur Keller, was a captain in the army of the South during the American Civil War. Her mother was his second wife. She was much younger than her husband. Helen was their first child.

Until she was a year-and-one-half old, Helen Keller was just like any other child. She was very active. She began walking and talking early. Then, nineteen months after she was born, Helen became very sick. It was a strange sickness that made her completely blind and deaf. The doctor could not do anything for her. Her bright, happy world now was filled with silence and darkness.

Ann was a loyal and dedicated teacher to Helen
Ann was a loyal and dedicated teacher to Helen

RAY FREEMAN: From that time until she was almost seven years old, Helen could communicate only by making signs with her hands. But she learned how to be active in her silent, dark environment. The young child had strong desires. She knew what she wanted to do. No one could stop her from doing it. More and more, she wanted to communicate with others. Making simple signs with her hands was not enough. Something was ready to explode inside of her because she could not make people understand her. She screamed and struggled when her mother tried to control her.

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: When Helen was six, her father learned about a doctor in Baltimore, Maryland. The doctor had successfully treated people who were blind. Helen's parents took her on the train to Baltimore. But the doctor said he could do nothing to help Helen. He suggested the Kellers get a teacher for the blind who could teach Helen to communicate. A teacher arrived from the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston. Her name was Annie Sullivan.

She herself had once been almost completely blind. But she had regained her sight. At Perkins, she had learned the newest methods of teaching the blind.

RAY FREEMAN: Annie Sullivan began by teaching Helen that everything had a name. The secret to the names was the letters that formed them. The job was long and difficult. Helen had to learn how to use her hands and fingers to speak for her. But she was not yet ready to learn. First, she had to be taught how to obey, and how to control her anger. Miss Sullivan was quick to understand this. She wrote to friends in Boston about her experiences teaching Helen.


SARAH LONG: “The first night I arrived I gave Helen a doll. As she felt the doll with one hand I slowly formed the letters, d-o-l-l with my fingers in her other hand. Helen looked in wonder and surprise as she felt my hand. Then she formed the letters in my hand just as I had done in hers. She was quick to learn, but she was also quick in anger. For seven years, no one had taught her self-control. Instead of continuing to learn, she picked up the doll and threw it on the floor. She was this way in almost everything she did.

Even at the table, while eating, she did exactly as she pleased. She even put her hands in our plates and ate our food. The second morning, I would not let her put her hand on my plate. The family became troubled and left the room. I closed the door and continued to eat. Helen was on the floor, kicking and screaming and trying to pull the chair out from under me.

Helen and Anne playing chess
Helen and Anne playing chess

This continued for half an hour or so. Then she got up from the floor and came to find out what I was doing. Suddenly she hit me. Every time she did this I hit her hand. After a few minutes of this, she went to her place at the table and began to eat with her fingers. I gave her a spoon to eat with. She threw it on the floor. I forced her to get out of her chair to pick the spoon up. At last, after two hours, she sat down and ate like other people. I had to teach her to obey.

But it was painful to her family to see their deaf and blind child punished. So I asked them to let me move with Helen into a small one-room house nearby. The first day Helen was away from her family she kicked and screamed most of the time. That night I could not make her get into bed. We struggled, but I held her down on the bed. Luckily, I was stronger than she. The next morning I expected more of the same, but to my surprise she was calm, even peaceful.

Two weeks later, she had become a gentle child. She was ready to learn. My job now was pleasant. Helen learned quickly. Now I could lead and shape her intelligence. We spent all day together. I formed words in her hand, the names of everything we touched. But she had no idea what the words meant.

As time passed, she learned how to sew clothes and make things. Every day we visited the farm animals and searched for eggs in the chicken houses. All the time, I was busy forming letters and words in her hand with my fingers. Then one day, about a month after I arrived, we were walking outside. Something important happened.

We heard someone pumping water. I put Helen's hand under the cool water and formed the word w-a-t-e-r in her other hand. W-a-t-e-r, w-a-t-e-r. I formed the word again and again in her hand. Helen looked straight up at the sky as if a lost memory or thought of some kind was coming back to her.

Suddenly, the whole mystery of language seemed clear to her. I could see that the word w-a-t-e-r meant something wonderful and cool that flowed over her hand. The word became alive for her. It awakened her spirit, gave it light and hope. She ran toward the house. I ran after her. One by one she touched things and asked their name. I told her. She went on asking for names and more names.”


Helen Keller with Dr. Alexander Graham Bell
Helen Keller with Dr. Alexander Graham Bell

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: From that time on Helen left the house each day, searching for things to learn. Each new name brought new thoughts. Everything she touched seemed alive. One day, Helen remembered a doll she had broken. She searched everywhere for the pieces. She tried to put the pieces together but could not. She understood what she had done and was not happy. Miss Sullivan taught Helen many things -- to read and write, and even to use a typewriter. But most important, she taught Helen how to think.

RAY FREEMAN: For the next three years, Helen learned more and more new words. All day Miss Sullivan kept touching Helen's hand, spelling words that gave Helen a language. In time, Helen showed she could learn foreign languages. She learned Latin, Greek, French and German. Helen was able to learn many things, not just languages.

She was never willing to leave a problem unfinished, even difficult problems in mathematics. One time, Miss Sullivan suggested leaving a problem to solve until the next day. But Helen wanted to keep trying. She said, "I think it will make my mind stronger to do it now.”

SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: Helen traveled a lot with her family or alone with Miss Sullivan. In eighteen eighty-eight, Helen, her mother and Miss Sullivan went to Boston, Massachusetts. They visited the Perkins Institution where Miss Sullivan had learned to teach. They stayed for most of the summer at the home of family friends near the Atlantic Ocean. In Helen's first experience with the ocean, she was caught by a wave and pulled under the water. Miss Sullivan rescued her. When Helen recovered, she demanded, "Who put salt in the water? "

RAY FREEMAN: Three years after Helen started to communicate with her hands, she began to learn to speak as other people did. She never forgot these days. Later in life, she wrote: "No deaf child can ever forget the excitement of his first word. Only one who is deaf can understand the loving way I talked to my dolls, to the stones, to birds and animals. Only the deaf can understand how I felt when my dog obeyed my spoken command."

Those first days when Helen Keller developed the ability to talk were wonderful. But they proved to be just the beginning of her many successes.


SHIRLEY GRIFFITH: You have been listening to the first part of the story of Helen Keller. It was written by Katherine Clarke. Your narrators were Sarah Long, Ray Freeman and Shirley Griffith. Listen again next week at this time to People in America, a program in Special English on the Voice of America.