The First Lady of Courageby Rit Nosotro First Published:: 2003
In Tuscumbia, Alabama on June 27, 1880 Captain Arthur H. and Kate Adams Keller had a beautiful baby girl named Helen Adams Keller. Tragedy struck when little Helen was five months shy of her second birthday. She was overcome by a terrible illness that left her blind and deaf. Helen's doctors told her parents it was a "brain fever." However, modern doctors and researchers still are not sure whether it was meningitis, scarlet fever, or a severe bout of encephalitis.
Although quite intelligent, due to the fact that Helen could neither speak nor hear she had developmental difficulties. Communication was nearly impossible. By the time Helen was seven, she was so unmanageable that her family had just about given up hope. On February 3, 1887, Helen's father wrote a letter to Alexander Graham Bell, who eleven years earlier had also the invented the telephone, thanking the inventor for taking an interest in his little girl. By May of 1888 Helen's family and Bell were exchanging many letters. Alexander advised Mrs. Keller to write the Perkins School for the Blind, an establishment Mrs. Keller recognized from the Dickens' novel 'American Notes'. Michael Anagnos, the director of Perkins School sent a young graduate of the institute to live with them. Her name was Anne Sullivan.
At first Helen wasn't sure what to think of this stranger that had come into her life, however, in 1902 when Helen Keller published her first book, The Story of My Life, she wrote "The most significant day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me. I am filled with wonder when I consider the immeasurable contrast between the two lives which it connects." Within the first few months of Anne's presence Helen started to become less of a savage child and more like a young lady. Soon Anne gained her trust. A sudden breakthrough happened one day when Helen was seven years old. Anne, or Teacher as Helen always called her, sat by a water pump and ran the water over one of Helen's hand and spelled out W-A-T-E-R on the other one. Helen finally after years of frustration knew what this cool substance was. She was so excited she demanded to know the name of everything around her. By the end of the day she had learned 30 new words. By the time Helen was ten she had mastered Braille and the manual alphabet. During that year she had a meeting with Alexander. He asked her a range of questions about her surroundings and thought. Helen described a dream, in which she saw a house and described its unusual contents, complete with shapes and colors. Her favorite childhood dream was one she later achieved, that dream was attending college.
In 1900 Helen reached her goal and attended Radcliff College. Later on Radcliff dedicated a garden in her name and gave her the Alumnae Achievement Award. At Radcliff she met and befriended John Albert Macy. John helped Helen write her first book and autobiography entitled The Story of My Life. By the time Helen was 24 she had graduated college with a Bachelor of Arts degree. She was the first deaf blind woman to receive this degree. Even though Anne was married in 1905 to John Macy, it did not change Anne and Helen's relationship. They were inseparable until Anne's death in 1936. Anne was worried about who would look after Helen so she hired and trained a girl named Polly Thompson as her replacement.
Helen Keller spent her adult life drawing awareness to the blind and deaf community. She traveled to 30 different countries to demonstrate that blind and deaf people could still function in society. She became one of the world's leading women. The last public appearance she made was in 1961 at a Lion's meeting where she was presented with an award for her life-long service to humanity. Helen Keller passed away on June 1, 1968 at 87 years old.
Helen Keller received many awards during the course of her life. Among them the Presidential Medal of Freedom, Brazil's Order of the Southern Cross, the Philippines' Golden Heart, Japan's Sacred Treasure, and in 1991, was named one of the most important people of the twentieth century by Life magazine. She will always be remembered as "the first lady of courage".
They took away what should have been my eyes
(But I remembered Milton's Paradise).
They took away what should have been my ears,
(Beethoven came and wiped away my tears).
They took away what should have been my tongue,
(But I had talked with God when I was young).
He would not let them take away my soul -
Possessing that, I still possess the whole.
1) The Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers at the Library of Congress
2) The Story of My Life (New York: Andor, 1976)
3) Midstream: My Later Life (New York: Greenwood, 1968).
4) Perkins School for the Blind. http://www.perkins.pvt.k12.ma.us/section.php?id=15
5) Helen Keller Foundation. http://helenkellerfoundation.org/a-life.html
6) American Foundation for the Blind. http://www.afb.org/info_documents.asp?collectionid=1