Helen Keller

by Anne Sullivan

I want to talk to you about eyes. For perhaps more than most people, I know the meaning and value of vision. My lifework, as you know, has been the teaching of a blind person to see as much as could be seen with the mind alone. I have stood on the threshold, as it were, between a world of light and a world of darkness, and tried to interpret the one to the other. And since my experience in teaching one who is wholly blind applies in lesser degree to the teaching of those who are visually handicapped, what I have to say should be of service to many of you teachers and mothers who are listening to me.

Will you try a little experiment with me?

Close your eyes, seal up your ears, try to erase from you memory all the impressions which your sight and your hearing have ever brought you. This will give you some idea of the world that Helen Keller has lived in.

But Helen Keller has come out of that world. She is one of the very first who have conquered the tremendous handicaps to expression of the blind and the deaf and the mute to tell us in words we can understand how dark and how hopeless is the world without light and without color and sound. Her books, "The Story of My Life," "Out of the Dark," "The World I Live In," and "Midstream," the autobiography of her later years, tell the story of our upward climb together, she the star pupil and I her teacher, until today her enjoyments and appreciations, if not as complete, are as rich as anyone's.

Perhaps the greatest single loss was the loss of sight, for with sight the largest part of the task of learning would have been made simpler and a great many of the ordinary beauties which are a part of daily living would not have had to take so circuitous a route as they did for Helen Keller. People do not appreciate their splendid gift of vision, the gift that brings light both physical and mental and the interplay of shadows and colors. Only a brave example like Helen Keller's, fighting the long uphill battle to make up the deficiency in other ways, can wake them up, make them realize the value of their own senses and have compassion and understanding for those whose senses are handicapped.

The process of learning, especially in children, depends very largely on the impressions our sight brings us. Visual sensations, such as colors, are of course definable only through the eyes, but the names of many tangible things are most easily taught by actually seeing them or pictures of them, and we learn to perform most of our simple daily tasks by watching others do them. This is the normal education of the majority of people, and the traces of that means of education last throughout our lives. Even for older people, the easiest way to make them understand something is to appeal to their visual sense. It has always been more effective to say that two apples plus two apples make four apples than to say that two plus two make four, because the statement calls up a definite image in our minds. That is partly the reason for the common saying, "Seeing is believing," and that accounts for the force of example and the demonstration method in teaching people of all ages.

The estimate, therefore, that eighty-three per cent of our knowledge comes to us through our eyes is a just one, and it should be added that such knowledge is the most convincing and the most real to us of any. To be unable to use our eyes at all or to use them with only partial efficiency is a very great handicap indeed, and puts an obstacle in the path of learning that none of us would willingly accept. The pity of it is that a great many children actually start their careers with some such handicap, and nothing is done to help them. If they are without sight or if their vision is very poor, their trouble is of course apparent; but entirely too many others are branded as dull or backward or stupid - some are even refractory and rebellious - simply because they have never known and have never been shown what perfect vision is. A blurred book or a blurred blackboard is a lesson half lost.

My experience in teaching Helen Keller as a little girl brought all this out vividly to me. But not only was there no stock of visual images to appeal to, but at first there was no means of communication and no words to communicate with. She was born a perfectly normal, healthy child, and for nineteen months she could see, hear and speak. Then an illness destroyed her sight and hearing, and because she could not know the human voice, she became nuts. When I saw her first she was six years and eight months old. She was physically strong and active, but her mind was in prison, lit only with the vaguest baby memories of sound and color and beauty. No one could communicate with her, but I had an advantage over others in the knowledge of a manual alphabet, a spelling by means of the fingers which could appeal to the sense of touch still unimpaired in the little girl. The first thing I had to do was to lead her to identify certain simple objects with the letters and combinations of letters I spelled into her hand - to teach her that there were objects around her and that they had names.

"Doll" was the first object that Helen Keller learned. Over and over again I spelled the letters into her hand; then I would give her the familiar plaything of her childhood, and slowly, very slowly she identified the letters spelled out with the doll itself. The next word was "cake," and in a month I had in this way taught her perhaps thirty words.

But they were separate, unrelated words. She had learned the word "mug." I put water into the mug, dipped Helen's finger into it and spelled out the word "water." But she could not connect the two. Her mind, wrapped in a darkness which could not be pierced in ordinary ways, could not understand the relation between the mug and the more difficult thing called "water."

Now my task seemed hopeless. A child with eyes to see would have made the mental jump in a moment, but for Helen, dwelling in a world where things were unknown and un-named, the flash of comprehension was lacking. What could I do? An old-fashioned pump stood by the garden house of her southern home, and I led her to it, pumped water over her hand and spelled over and over again the word "water," pumped and spelled again. And then a miracle happened, the miracle that eyes perform a thousand times daily actually happened in Helen's lightless world. The idea that the world "water" stood for and the relation to "mug" were borne somehow into her mind, and she understood what my spelling meant. She jumped up and down with joy. A new world was opened - many new worlds; and that day she learned thirty new words, as much as she had learned in a whole month of patient spelling and slow comprehension.

And now what an eager, alive inquisitive youngster my little pupil was!

Everything required exploring. The commonest objects were full of new meaning, and each discovery was an exciting event. Now that a medium of communication was established, her progress was very rapid; she learned everything that other children learn and in much the same way, with the exception that I spelled everything into her hand instead of speaking to her. Since then she has learned to speak; she has graduated from one of the leading colleges; she has acquired new languages and acquired foreign literatures; she has traveled widely, written, and learned to sense the beauties of nature and enjoyment of the out-of-doors. But it all began with a "mug of water."

For many years now, we, Helen Keller herself and I, her teacher, have spent our efforts in aiding those who live in darkness and in spreading the gospel of eye-care to those who are more fortunate. Her message to teachers and mothers is one born of long experience, and it is this: Look to the eyes of children, and see that they are not hindered by a cloudy vision which may be cured or corrected. Our friend, Mr. Julian, director of the Better Vision Institute, devoted to the good work of educating people to care for their precious eyesight, tells us that two out of five school children in the land do not see perfectly and that unknown to themselves, their parents and their teachers they are struggling against the odds of faulty sight at the very beginning of their careers. As Helen Keller says, "If you could meet, as I have, the hundreds of men and women who testify that they were grown up before they knew that it was faulty vision which held them back at school and later in business, they would endeavor (sic) to find out all there is to know about improving and conserving vision. The ounce of prevention is worth many times the pound of cure. So I urge you at once to investigate the true condition of your eyes and those of your children. `Guessing' or assuming that your vision is all that it should be is extremely foolish and may prove costly. Should glasses be found necessary, they should be worn unhesitatingly, because they are a positive asset and safeguard."

As I say good-night to you, let me repeat Helen Keller's message and my own: Look to the eyes of the children in your care. The children cannot tell you that their sight is imperfect because they may never have known what perfect sight is. It is your obligation to find out and to take the corrective measures necessary. This is the message of one who has lived in darkness and knows better than most what vision may mean.

Courtesy of AFB Helen Keller Archives


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