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Learning from Helen Keller

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LEARNING FROM HELEN KELLER

Brandon

Facilitated Communication Institute

Helen Keller is probably the most universally recognized disabled person of the twentieth century. (Others such as Franklin Roosevelt were equally well-known, but Keller is remembered primarily for her accomplishments which are disability-related.) Those of us who have grown up in the last half of this century have only known Keller as a figure of veneration. We know her primarily through popularized versions of her life such as the play "The Miracle Worker," or through her autobiographical works such as The Story of My Life (Keller, 1961 [1902]) and The World I Live In (Keller, 1908). Most of us have come away with the image of a more-than-human person living with the blessed support of an equally superhuman mentor, Annie Sullivan Macy.

There is little wisdom, however, to be learned from the stories of superheroes. It is from observing the struggles, losses and compromises in both Keller and Sullivan's lives that we are likely to find parallels to the everyday experiences of ourselves and our friends. Dorothy Herrmann's recent biography of Keller, Helen Keller: A Life (Herrmann, 1998) creates a much more complete picture of the costs of Keller's celebrity and iconic status, and of the tensions present in her life-long relationship with the woman whom she always referred to as Teacher. In this paper, I will discuss two important themes from Helen Keller's life in terms of their implications for those of us who are also part of a community of people engaged in the enterprise of finding their voices in the world.

The "Frost King" Incident

Helen Keller was born in Alabama in 1880, and became deaf and then blind following an illness when she was 19 months old. Annie Sullivan came to Alabama to work as Helen's teacher in March, 1887. Scarcely a month later, on April 5, 1887, came the well-known moment at the water-pump, where Helen first associated the objects she experienced with the words being spelled into her hand. Within the next year, Helen began keeping a journal, and was studying the poetry of Longfellow, Whittier, and Oliver Wendell Holmes. By the time she was ten years old, Helen Keller was literally world-famous. As early as October, 1888, she was writing letters such as the following one to Michael Anagnos, the director of the Perkins' School for the Blind:

Mon cher Monsieur Anagnos,

....I hope you will go with me to Athens to see the maid of Athens. She was very lovely lady and I will talk Greek to her. I will say, se agapo and pos echete and I think she will say, kalos, and then I will say chaere. Will you please come to see me soon and take me to the theater? When you come I will say Kale emera, and when you go home I will say Kale nykta. Now I am too tired to write more. Je vous time. Au revoir.

From your darling little friend,

HELEN A. KELLER

Anagnos, the man responsible for connecting Annie Sullivan with the Keller family and an eager promoter of the interests of the Perkins' School, where Sullivan had been both a student and a teacher trainee, was effusive in his description of Helen Keller in the Perkins' School's 1888 annual report, published little more than a year after she began to communicate:

...as if impelled by a resistless instinctive force she snatched the key of the treasury of the English language from the fingers of her teacher, unlocked its doors with vehemence, and began to feast upon its contents with inexpressible delight. As soon as a slight crevice was opened in the outer wall of their twofold imprisonment, her mental faculties emerged full-armed from their living tomb as Pallas Athene from the head of Zeus. (Quoted in Herrmann, 1998, p.64).

In subsequent years, Anagnos wrote at length of Keller in the School's annual report, with each report more glowing and, it must be said, more exaggerated than the last -- 146 pages were devoted to her in the 1889 annual report:

...She is the queen of precocious and brilliant children, Emersonian in temper, most exquisitely organized, with intellectual sight of unsurpassed sharpness and infinite reach... (quoted in Hermann, 1998, p.75).

These are heady words to describe a nine-year-old child, even one of Keller's remarkable accomplishments. Although Keller and Sullivan were developing a wide circle of influential friends among the rich and famous of Boston, resentment was growing over the preferential treatment Keller received at the Perkins' School. Morever, suspicions were growing of how real Keller's accomplishments were, since no teacher of deaf-blind students had ever showed the same success that Annie Sullivan had seen in her brief time with Helen.

In November, 1891, Helen sent Anagnos a birthday gift: "The Frost King," a fairy tale she had written for him on her braille slate. Anagnos was delighted with the story, and reprinted it in The Mentor, the Perkins' School's alumni magazine. It was soon reprinted to great acclaim in a weekly publication of the Virginia Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb and Blind; however, the editors of that journal were soon informed that Helen's story was remarkably similar to a story published in a book of fairy-tales by Margaret T. Canby. Anagnos looked into the situation, and discovered that, during the previous year, when Helen had been visiting at a friend's home, she had probably been read the story in Annie Sullivan's absence. When he questioned Helen through an interpreter, however, she told him that when she had written "The Frost King," she believed it to be an original story. Ten years later, in The Story of My Life, Keller would write:

...how could it possibly have happened? I racked my brain until I was weary to recall anything about the frost that I had read before I wrote "The Frost King;" but I could remember nothing, except the common reference to Jack Frost, and a poem for children, "The Freaks of the Frost," and I knew I had not used that in my composition. (Keller, 1961, p. 65.)

Anagnos at first believed Keller had made an innocent mistake. Some months later, however, in response to an accusation by one of the Perkins' teachers that Helen had told her the story had been read to her very recently by Annie Sullivan, Anagnos decided to convene a "court of investigation." The court was composed of eight school officials, four of whom were blind, and Anagnos. Keller described

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