• 'A Light Shines Upon Me': How Helen Keller Became the Poster Child for Overcoming Adversity

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    A young mother sat in her Tuscumbia, Ala., home reading a book that was about to change the course of her family’s life. The book was Charles Dickens’ American Notes. The chapter that filled her with hope described the author’s meeting with a young girl named Laura Bridgman, who had accomplished remarkable things despite being deaf and blind -- as was the reader's own daughter. That mother’s name was Kate Adams Keller and her daughter’s name, of course, was Helen.

    A few months later and far to the north, a letter crossed the desk of Michael Anagnos, the son in-law of Samuel Howe and his successor at the Perkins Institute in Boston. Laura Bridgman had put the institute on the map, but the fame and fortune of both the school and its star pupil had long since faded from public interest. Anagnos desperately needed a “second Laura Bridgman” to rejuvenate the reputation of his institute. The letter from Mrs. Keller seemed to offer just that.

    The letter, however, was not requesting admission for Helen to the institute, but rather that the school send a tutor to their home. Thus, in 1887, Anagnos sent them his most recent star Perkins graduate, Anne Sullivan.

    The fortitude and will that Anne would demonstrate in the years ahead were undoubtedly tempered in the cauldron of a wretched childhood. The oldest child of impoverished, illiterate Irish immigrants, Anne was nearly blind from trachoma by age five, lost her mother and two siblings when she was eight and was eventually abandoned by her alcoholic father. She became a ward of the state poorhouse, where her beloved brother died. At age 14, unable to even spell her own name, she was transferred to Perkins as a charity case.

    Her lot did not immediately improve, as she was scorned by the other girls for her Irish heritage and shabby clothes, but her one stroke of fortune was to be assigned to the same cottage as Laura Bridgman. Anne found comfort in Laura’s company, and the years she spent observing and talking with the older woman may have prepared her better than anything else for the task that lay ahead. In any case, seven years later, with her vision partially restored by surgery, Anne graduated at the top of her class and was soon bound for Alabama and her destiny.

    The story of Helen Keller and her intrepid teacher is well known and will forever stand as a testament to the indomitable resilience of the human spirit. Less well appreciated is the role that the Perkins Institute, and especially Laura Bridgman, may have played in helping to mold this remarkable life.

    We have seen how Laura’s fame, albeit fleeting, was responsible for Helen’s mother discovering the institute and how Anne Sullivan’s time with Laura helped prepare her for the challenge she was to face. Anne had not been in Tuscumbia long before she abandoned the rigid classroom sessions and rote memorization techniques that the institute promoted and adopted a more personal, interactive, approach she had learned from her years with Laura.

    This is not to say that Anne was not demanding and persistent with Helen, but the results speak for themselves. Not only did Helen learn to communicate in a world without sight or sound, she mastered French, German, Latin and Greek; read Roman history, German philosophy and English literature; graduated from Radcliffe College; wrote numerous books and articles; traveled around the world and worked tirelessly for humanitarian causes.

    Keller and Bridgman met only once, when Helen visited Perkins in 1888. On Anne’s initial trip to Alabama, she had taken as a gift a doll dressed in clothes made by Laura, so Helen was anxious to meet the dressmaker.

    The meeting was awkward. Laura was 59 and quite set in her ways. She was fastidious to the point of near phobia and refused to let children touch her needlework or her face. When eight-year-old Helen tried to sit on the floor beside the older woman, Laura chastised her for mussing up her clean clothes. And then, as the two were parting and Helen was attempting to kiss Laura goodbye, she stepped on the frail woman’s toes.

    It is tempting to wonder why two women with similar challenges and talents had such different outcomes to their lives. One became the all-time poster child for overcoming adversity, and the other faded into oblivion. In deference to Laura, Helen did have several material advantages: a more supportive family, an attractive physical appearance, access to Braille (which was not widely accepted in America during Laura’s time) and especially the wisdom, drive and companionship of Anne Sullivan.

    But there may have been an even more important factor. Although no one could blame her, Laura always seemed to rue her lot in life and did not hesitate to express it. As she grew older, she appeared to become more bitter and withdrawn into herself. Helen, on the other hand, refused to see her physical challenges as a curse, but rather as a gift. “I thank God for my handicaps, for through them I have found myself, my work and my God,” she once wrote. She spent her life striving to be as “normal” as possible and to make the most of all the talents she was given. In another quote, she said “the doors of the bright world are flung open before me and a light shines upon me."

    And so, from Valentin Haüy’s first institute for the blind in Paris, through the Perkins Institute and other schools for the blind and deaf around the world, to all the Laura Bridgmans and Helen Kellers who paved the way, the light shines increasingly brighter for those living in the darkness of a world without sight or sound.

    Today, with advances in biomedical technology and increasingly remarkable computer applications, the future looks brighter than ever, especially for those who are determined to make the most of whatever life has to offer.

    References

    Gitter, Elisabeth. The Imprisoned Guest: Samuel Howe and Laura Bridgman, the Original Deaf-Blind Girl. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2001.

    Helen Keller. The Story of My Life. The Complete and Unabridged Edition. Seven Treasures Publications, Lexington, KY, 2008 (original published in 1903).