Helen Keller was born in a small town called Tuscumbia, Alabama, on an estate called Ivy Green. Her birthday was June 27, 1880, and her parents were Kate Adams Keller and Colonel Arthur Keller. Theirs was a house full of words; Helen’s dad was the editor of the local paper, The North Alabamian. But silence fell on this house in February 1882 when 19-month-old Helen became extremely ill and lost her ability to hear and see.
Learning was tough for Helen. Because of her deafness and blindness, no one could get through to her, and she could not communicate with others. Basic rules and lessons made no sense to her, and she was called a “wild child”. Then, in 1886, her mom heard about the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston from Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone. Helen reminded Bell of another girl named Laura Bridgman, who was deaf and blind. Kate wrote to the head of the Perkins School to ask for a teacher for Helen and they sent their star student, Anne Sullivan. The day she arrived—March 3, 1887—Helen’s life changed.
Anne had to figure out a way to make Helen understand words and their meaning. She began to teach Helen letters, by signing them into her palm. Then just one month later, everything clicked. Anne held Helen’s hand under a pump while signing W-A-T-E-R into her palm. Helen’s whole face lit up. The word came to life, in one moment. That day, she learned 30 words.
Now Helen was too busy to be wild, and her brainpower shone through. Quickly, she learned words and then sentences. Soon she was able to communicate by signing the manual alphabet. But Helen wasn’t satisfied with signing alone. She wanted to learn to write. In addition to learning to write in braille, Helen placed a ruler on the page as a guide and drew very square block letters.
In 1888, Helen left home for the first time. She and Anne attended the Perkins School for the Blind as a guest of the director, Michael Anagnos. Helen became an overnight celebrity. However, her friendship with Anagnos suffered when she was accused of plagiarism (which means copying someone else’s writing and calling it your own). Helen had written a story entitled “The Frost King” for Anagnos’s birthday. It was a lot like a story Helen had heard once, long before, and perhaps she remembered parts of it without realizing it. Some people said Helen’s writing was just too good for someone who couldn’t see or hear nature with her own eyes and ears.
But Helen had spent most of her childhood outside! Anne had taught Helen many things outside of the classroom. She taught her to touch, smell, and experience nature. She wanted Helen to be curious, ask questions, and to discover the world around her. And, for the rest of her life, Helen loved to smell and touch flowers, to feel the wind on her face…she was curious about everything!
Try naming 39 countries—that’s how many nations Helen and Polly visited! This world tour was funded largely by the American Foundation for the Overseas Blind (now called Helen Keller Worldwide). Everywhere she went, Helen was greeted by throngs of children, as well as famous personalities such as the British leader Winston Churchill and the Indian Premier Jawaharlal Nehru. Centers were established in her name in countries such as India, the Soviet Union, and Egypt.
Helen’s life has been the subject of movies, books, and plays for many decades. In 1955, Helen received an Academy Award for the documentary about her life, Helen Keller in Her Story (originally called The Unconquered). In 1959, Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke starred in the Broadway play The Miracle Worker. The play, written by William Gibson, was based on Anne’s earliest efforts to teach Helen how to communicate. Three years later, Anne Bancroft and Patty Duke starred in a movie version of the play. Both women won Academy Awards for their performances.
Helen was a very spiritual woman. She believed that everyone from all races and cultures deserved the same rights. She died in her sleep in 1968.
Helen at the age of 7, 1887
Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan, 1898
Helen Keller at the age of 78, 1959
photos: http://www.afb.org/braillebug/hkmuseum.asp, wikipedia