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Helen Keller’s Own Story of Her Life
“In the story of my life here presented to the readers of The Ladies’ Home Journal, I have tried to show that afflictions may be looked at in such a way that they become privileges.”
by Helen Keller, Cambridge, May 1902
PART SECOND: THE DAWN
THE most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher came to me. This was in March, 1887. The following June I was seven years old. That day stands out clear and distinct in my memory, and I am filled with wonder when I consider the immeasurable contrast between the two lives which it connects. On the afternoon of that eventful day I stood on the porch with a dumb, expectant air. I guessed vaguely from my mother’s signs and from the hurrying to and fro in the house that something unusual was about to happen, so I went to the door and waited on the steps. The afternoon sun penetrated the mass of honeysuckle that covered the porch, and fell on my upturned face. My fingers lingered almost unconsciously on the familiar leaves and blossoms which had just come forth to greet the sweet Southern spring. I did not know what the future held of marvel or surprise for me. Anger and bitterness had preyed upon me continually for weeks and a deep languor had succeeded this passionate struggle.
Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line, and you waited with heating heart for something to happen? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without plummet or sounding-line, and had no way of knowing how near the harbor was. “Light! Give me light!” was the wordless cry of my soul, and the light of love shone on me in that very hour.
I felt approaching footsteps. I stretched out my hand, as I supposed to my mother. Some one took it, and I was caught up and held close in the arms of her who had come to reveal all things and, more than all else, to love me.
THE morning after my teacher came she led me into her room and gave me a beautiful doll. After I had played with it a little while she slowly spelled into my hand the word “d-o-l-l.” I was greatly interested in this finger play and tried to imitate it. When I finally succeeded in making the letters correctly I was flushed with childish pleasure and pride. Then, running downstairs to my mother, I held up my hand and made the letters for “doll.
In the days that followed I learned to spell a great many words, among them “pin,” “hat,” “cup,” and a few verbs like “sit,” “stand” and “walk.” But my teacher had been with me several weeks before I understood that everything has a name.
One day, while I was playing with my new doll, my teacher put my big rag doll into my lap also, spelled “doll,” and tried to make me understand that “doll” applied to both. Earlier in the day we had had a tussle over the words “mug” and “water.” Miss Sullivan had tried to impress it upon me that “m-u-g” was “mug,” and that “w-a-t-e-r” was “water,” but I persisted in confounding the two. In despair she had dropped the subject for the time, only to renew it at the first opportunity. I became impatient, and, seizing the new doll, dashed it upon the floor. I felt a keen delight when I found the fragments of the broken doll at my feet. Neither sorrow nor regret followed my passionate outburst. I had not loved the doll. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no sentiment, no tenderness. I felt my teacher sweep the fragments to one side of the hearth, and I had a sense of satisfaction that the cause of my discomfort was removed. My teacher brought me my hat, and I knew I was going out into the warm sunshine. This thought, if a wordless sensation may be called a thought, made me hop and skip with pleasure.
WE WALKED down the path to the well-house, attracted by the fragrance of the honeysuckle with which it was covered. Some one was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelt into the other the word “water,” first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness 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. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy: set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.
I left the well-house eager to learn. Everything had a name, and each name gave birth to a new thought. As we returned to the house every objectwhich I touched seemed to quiver with life. That was because I saw everything with the strange, new sight which had come to me. On entering the door I remembered the doll I had broken. I felt my way to the hearth and picked up the pieces. I tried vainly to put them together. Then my eyes filled with tears; for I realized what I had done, and for the first time I felt repentance and sorrow.
I learned a great many new words that day. I do not remember what they all were; but I do know that “mother,” “father,” “sister,” “teacher” were among them — words that were to make the world blossom for me, “like Aaron’s rod, with flowers.”
It would have been difficult to find a happier child than I was as I lay in my crib at the close of that eventful day, and lived over the joys it had brought me, and for the first time longed for a new day to come.
AS IF it were yesterday, I recall every incident of the summer of 1887 that followed my soul’s sudden awakening. I did nothing but explore with my hands and learn the name of every object that I touched; and the more I handled things and learned their names and uses, the more joyous and confident grew my sense of kinship with the rest of the world.
When the time of daisies and buttercups came Miss Sullivan took me by the hand across the fields, where men were preparing the earth for the seed, to the banks of the Tennessee River, and there, sitting on the warm grass, I had my first lessons in the beneficence of Nature. It was in these long summer days that I learned how the sun and the rain make to grow out of the ground every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food, how birds build their nests and live and thrive from land to land, and how the Squirrel, the deer, the lion and every other creature finds food and shelter. As my knowledge of things grew I felt more and more the delight of the world I was in. Long before I learned to do a sum in arithmetic or describe the shape of the earth, Miss Sullivan had taught me to find beauty in the fragrant woods, in every blade of grass, and in the curves and dimples of my baby sister’s hand. She linked my earliest thoughts with Nature, and made me feel that “birds and flowers and I were happy peers.”
BUT about this time I had an experience which taught me that Nature is not always kind. One day my teacher and I were returning from a long ramble. The morning had been fine, but it was growing warm and sultry when at last we turned our faces homeward. Two or three times we stopped to rest under a tree by the wayside. Our last halt was under a wild cherry tree, a short distance from the house. The shade was grateful, and the tree was so easy to climb that with my teacher’s aid I was able to scramble to a seat in the branches. It was so cool up in the tree that Miss Sullivan proposed that we have our luncheon there. I promised to keep still while she went to get it.
Suddenly a change passed over the tree. All the sun’s warmth left the air. I knew the sky was black because all the heat, which meant light to me, had died out of the atmosphere. A strange odor came up from the earth; I knew it: it was the odor that always precedes a thunderstorm, and a nameless fear clutched at my heart. I felt absolutely alone, cut off from my friends and the firm earth. The immense, the unknown, enfolded me. I remained still and expectant, a chilling fear creeping over me. I longed for my teacher’s return; but above all things I wished to get down from that tree.
There was a moment of sinister silence, then a multitudinous stirring of the leaves. A shiver ran through the tree, and the wind sent forth a blast that might have knocked me off had I not clung to the branch with might and main. The tree swayed and strained. The small twigs snapped and fell about me in showers. A wild impulse to jump seized me, but terror held me fast. I crouched down in the fork of the tree. The branches lashed about me. I felt the intermittent jarring that came now and then, as if something heavy had fallen and the shock had traveled up till it reached the limb I sat on. It worked my suspense up to the highest point, and just as I was thinking the tree and I should fall together, my teacher seized my hand and helped me down. I clung to her, trembling with joy to feel the warm earth under my feet once more. I had learned a new lesson — that Nature ” ages open war against her children, and under softest touch hides treacherous claws.”
After this experience it was a long time before I climbed another tree. The mere thought of doing it filled me with terror. It was the sweet allurement of the mimosa tree in full bloom that finally overcame my fears. I will tell you how it happened.
ONE beautiful June morning I was alone in the summer-house, reading, when all of a sudden I became aware of a wonderful, subtle fragrance in the air. I started up and instinctively stretched out my hands. It seemed as if the spirit of spring had passed through the summer-house. “What is it?” I asked myself, and the next minute I recognized the odor of the mimosa blossoms. I felt my way to the end of the garden, knowing that the mimosa tree was near the fence, at the turn of the path. Yes, there it was, all quivering in the warm sunshine, its blossom-laden branches almost touching the long grass. Was there ever anything so exquisitely beautiful in the world before! Its delicate blossoms shrank from the slightest earthly touch; it seemed as if a tree of Paradise had been transplanted to earth. I made my way through a shower of petals to the great trunk and stood for one minute irresolute; then, putting my foot in the broad space between the forked branches, I pulled myself up into the tree. I had some difficulty in holding on, for the branches were very large and the bark hurt my hands. But I had a delicious sense that I was doing something unusual and wonderful, so I kept on climbing higher and higher, until I reached a little seat which somebody had built there so long ago that the tree had grown about it until it was part of the tree itself. I sat there for a long, long time, feeling like a fairy on a rosy cloud. After that I spent many happy hours in my tree of Paradise, thinking fair thoughts and dreaming bright dreams.
First Steps Toward Learning to Read
THE next important step in my education which I remember distinctly was learning to read. As soon as I could spell a few words my teacher gave me slips of cardboard on which were printed words in raised letters. I quickly learned that each printed word stood for an object, an act or a quality. I had a frame in which I could arrange the words so that they would make little sentences; but before I ever put sentences in the frame I used to make them with objects. I found the slips of paper which represented, for example, “doll,” “is,” “On,” “bed,” and placed each name on its object; then I put my doll on the bed with the words “is,” “on,” “bed” arranged beside the doll, thus making a sentence of the words, and, at the same time, carrying out the idea of the sentence with the things themselves. One day, Miss Sullivan tells me, I pinned the word “girl” on my pinafore and stood in the wardrobe. On the shelf I arranged the words, “is,” “in,” “wardrobe.” Nothing delighted me so much as this game. I played it for hours at a time. Often everything in the room was arranged in object-sentences.
From the printed slip it was but a step to the printed book. I took my “Reader for Beginners” and hunted for the words I knew; when I found them my joy knew no bounds. Thus I began to read. Of the time when I began to read connected stories I shall speak later.
I had now the key to all language, and 1 was eager to learn to use it. Children who hear acquire language without any particular effort; they catch the words that fall from others’ lips on the wing, as it were, delightedly, while the little deaf child must trap them by a slow and often painful process. But whatever the process, the result is wonderful. Gradually, from naming an object we advance step by step until we have traversed the vast distance between our first stammered syllable to the sweep of thought in a line of Shakespeare. At first, when my teacher told me about a new thing, I asked very few questions. My ideas were vague, and my vocabulary was inadequate; but as my knowledge of things grew, and I learned more and more words, my field of inquiry broadened, and I would return again and again to the same subject, eager for further information. Sometimes a new word revived an image that some earlier experience had engraved on my brain.
Puzzled by the Meaning of “Love”
I REMEMBER the morning that I first asked the meaning I 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. She put her arm gently around 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. It seemed strange to me 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. 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 emphasis, “Think.” In a flash I knew that that word was the name of the process that was going on in my head. This was my first conscious perception of an abstract idea.
I was still for a long time, 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 splendor. 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. And 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.” Then the beautiful truth burst upon my mind — I realized that there were invisible lines stretched between my mind and the minds of others..
Out-of-Doors was the Favorite Schoolroom
BUT for a long time I had no regular lessons. Even when I studied most earnestly it seemed more like play than work. Everything Miss Sullivan taught me she illustrated by a beautiful story or a poem. Whenever anything interested me she talked it over with me just as if she were a little girl herself. What many children think of with dread, as a dull routine of textbooks, is today one of my most precious memories.
I cannot explain the peculiar sympathy she had with my pleasures and desires. Perhaps it was the result of long association with the blind. Added to this she had a wonderful faculty for description. She went quickly over uninteresting details, and never nagged me with questions to see if I remembered the day-before- yesterday’s lesson. She introduced dry technicalities of science little by little, making every subject so real that I could not help remembering what she taught.
We read and studied out-of-doors, preferring the sunlit, odorous woods to the house. All my early lessons have in them the breath of the woods — the fine, resinous odor of pine needles, blended with the perfume of wild grapes. Seated in the gracious shade of a wild tulip tree, I learned to think that everything had a lesson and a suggestion. “The loveliness of things taught me all their use.” Indeed, everything that could hum, or buzz, or sing, or bloom had a part in my education — noisy-throated frogs, katydids and crickets held in my hand until, forgetting their embarrassment, they trilled their reedy note; little downy chickens and wild flowers — the dogwood blossoms, meadow violets and budding fruit trees. I felt the bursting cotton-pods and fingered their silky contents and brown seeds; I felt the low soughing of the wind through the cornstalks, the silky rustling of the long leaves, and the indignant snort of my pony as we caught him in the pasture and put the bit in his mouth — ah me, how well I remember the spicy, clovery smell of his breath.
Our favorite walk was to Keller’s Landing, an old tumbled-down lumber-wharf on the Tennessee River, used during the Civil War to land soldiers. There we spent many happy hours and played at learning geography. I built dams of pebbles, made islands and lakes, and dug river-beds, all for fun, and never dreamed that I was learning a lesson. I listened with increasing wonder to Miss Sullivan’s descriptions of the great round world with its burning mountains, buried cities, moving rivers of ice, and many other things as strange. She made raised maps in clay, so that I could feel the mountain ridges and valleys, and follow with my fingers the devious course of rivers. I liked this, too; but the division of the earth into zones and poles confused and teased my mind. The illustrative strings and the orange-stick representing the poles seemed so real that even to this day the mere mention of the temperate zone suggests a series of twine circles; and I believe that if any one should set about it he could convince me that white bears actually climb the North Pole!
Dipping into Natural History
ARITHMETIC seems to have been the only study I did not like. From the first I was not interested in the science of numbers. Miss Sullivan tried to teach me to count by stringing beads in groups; and by arranging kindergarten straws I learned to add and subtract. I never had patience to arrange more than five or six groups at a time. When I had accomplished this my conscience was at rest for the day, and I went out quickly to find my playmates.
Once a gentleman whose name I have forgotten sent me a collection of fossils — tiny mollusk shells beautifully marked, and bits of sandstone with the marks of birds’ claws, and a lovely fern in bas-relief. These were the keys which unlocked the treasures of the antediluvian world for me. With trembling fingers I listened to Miss Sullivan’s descriptions of the terrible beasts, with uncouth, unpronounceable names, which once went trampling through the primeval forests, tearing down the branches of the gigantic trees for food, and died in the dismal swamps of an unknown age. For a long time these strange creatures haunted my dreams.
Another time a beautiful shell was given me, and with a child’s surprise and delight I learned how a tiny mollusk had built the lustrous coil for his dwelling-place, and how on still nights, when there is no breeze stirring the waves, the Nautilus sails on the blue waters of the Indian Ocean in his “ship of pearl.” After I had learned a great many interesting things about the life and habits of the children of the sea — how in the midst of dashing waves the little polyps build the beautiful coral isles of the Pacific, and the foraminifera have made the chalk-hills of many a land — my teacher read me “The Chambered Nautilus” and showed me that the shell-building process of the mollusks is symbolical of the development of the mind. Just as the wonder-working mantle of the Nautilus changes the material it absorbs from the water and makes it a part of itself, so the bits of knowledge one gathers undergo a similar change, and in time become rich pearls of thought.
Watching Plants and Tadpoles Grow
AGAIN, it was the growth of a plant that furnished the text for a lesson. We bought a lily and set it in a sunny window. Very soon the green buds showed signs of opening. The slender, finger-like leaves on the outside opened slowly, reluctant, I thought, to reveal the loveliness they hid; once having made a start, however, the opening process went on rapidly, but in order and systematically. There was always one bud larger and more beautiful than the rest, which pushed her outer covering back with more pomp, as if the beauty in soft, silky robes knew that she was the lily-queen by right divine, while her more timid sisters doffed their green hoods shyly, until the whole plant was one nodding bough of loveliness and fragrance.
Again, it was eleven tadpoles in a glass globe set in a window full of plants. I remember the eagerness and delight with which I made discoveries about them. It was great fun to plunge my hand into the bowl arid feel the tadpoles frisk about, and to let them slip and slide between my fingers. One day a more ambitious fellow leaped beyond the edge of the bowl and fell on the floor, where I found him to all appearance more dead than alive. But no sooner had he returned to his element than he darted to the bottom, swimming round and round in joyous activity. He had seen the great world, and was content to stay in his pretty glass house under the big fuchsia tree until he attained the dignity of froghood. Then he went to live in the leafy pool at the end of the garden, where he made the summer nights musical with his quaint love-song.
Sometimes I rose at dawn and stole into the garden while the heavy dew lay on the grass and flowers. Few know what joy it is to feel the roses pressing softly into the hand, or the beautiful motion of the lilies as they sway in the breeze. Sometimes I caught an insect in the flower I was plucking, and felt the faint action of wings rubbed together in terror, as the little creature became aware of a pressure from without.
Another favorite haunt of mine was the orchard, where the fruit ripened early in July. The large, downy peaches would reach themselves into my hand, and as the joyous breezes flew about the trees the apples tumbled at my feet. Oh, the delight with which I gathered up the fruit in my pinafore, pressed my face against the rosy cheeks of the apples, still warm from the sun, and skipped back to the house!
Christmas Festivities at Tuscumbia
THE first Christmas after Miss Sullivan came to Tuscumbia was a great event. Every one in the family prepared surprises for me; but what pleased me most, Miss Sullivan and I prepared surprises for everybody else. The mystery that surrounded the gifts was my greatest delight and amusement. My friends did all they could to excite my curiosity by hints and half-spelled sentences. Miss Sullivan and I kept up a game of guessing which taught me more about the use of language than any set lessons could have done. Every evening, seated around a glowing wood fire, we played our guessing game, which grew more and more exciting as Christmas approached.
At last, on Christmas Eve, the parlor door was thrown open and we all went in. In the centre of the room stood a beautiful tree ablaze and shimmering in the soft light, its branches loaded with strange, wonderful fruit. It was a moment of supreme happiness. I danced and capered around the tree in an ecstasy. I was given some of my presents and easily persuaded to leave the rest until morning. I went to sleep with a new doll and a white bear in my arms. Next morning it was I who roused the household with my “Merry Christmas.” I dressed hurriedly, thinking all the time of the enchanted tree downstairs. When Miss Sullivan gave me a beautiful canary my cup of delight overflowed.
Little Tim was so tame that he would hop on my finger and eat candied cherries out of my hand. Miss Sullivan taught me to take all the care of my new pet. Every morning after breakfast I prepared his bath, made his cage clean and sweet, filled his cups with fresh seed, and water from the well-house, and hung a spray of chickweed in his swing. One morning I left the cage on the window-seat while I went to fetch water for his bath. When I returned I felt a big cat brush past me as I opened the door. At first I did not realize what had happened; but when I put my hand in the cage, and Tim’s pretty wings did not meet my touch, or his small pointed claws take hold of my finger, I knew that I should never see my sweet little singer again.
Thus I learned from life itself. At the beginning I was only a little mass of possibilities. It was my teacher who unfolded and developed them. When she came everything about me breathed of love and joy and was full of meaning. She has never let pass an opportunity to point out the beauty that is in everything, nor has she ceased trying in thought and action and example to make my life sweet and useful.
A Loving Tribute to a Devoted Teacher
MY TEACHER is so near to me that I scarcely think of myself apart from her. How much of my delight in all beautiful things is innate, and how much is due to her influence, I can never tell! I feel that her being is inseparable from my own, and that the footsteps of my life are in hers. All the best of me belongs to her — there is not a talent, or an aspiration, or a joy in me that has not been awakened by her loving touch. I wonder if I shall ever be able to render to another a service comparable to this.
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 being 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 stimuli 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 could find something appropriate to say in the nick of time.
My teacher realized that a child’s mind is like a shallow brook which ripples and dances merrily over the stony course of its education and reflects here a flower, there a bush, yonder a fleecy cloud; and she attempted to guide my mind on its way, knowing that like a brook it should be fed by mountain streams and hidden springs, until it broadened out into a deep river, capable of reflecting in its placid surface, billowy hills, the luminous shadows of trees and the blue heavens, as well as the sweet face of a little flower.
It was my teacher’s genius, her quick sympathy, her loving tact which made the first years of my education so beautiful. It was because she seized the right moment to impart knowledge that made it so pleasant and acceptable to me. Any teacher can take a child to the classroom, but not every teacher can make him learn. He will not work joyously unless he feels that liberty is his, whether he is busy or at rest; he must feel the flush of victory and the heart-sinkings of disappointment before he takes with a will the tasks distasteful to him and resolves to dance his way bravely through a dull routine of textbooks.
(CONTINUED IN THE JUNE JOURNAL)
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Source: Keller, Helen, “The Story of My Life Series: Part 2,” The Ladies’ Home Journal, May 1902. Disability History Museum, http://www.disabilitymuseum.org/dhm/lib/detail.html?id=2394&&page=1 (May 2, 2014).
How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Keller, H. (1902). Helen Keller’s own story of her life. Social Welfare History Project. Retrieved [date accessed] from http://socialwelfare.library.vcu.edu/issues/keller-helen-story-life-part-2/