Helen Keller: The Mystery of Language
Helen Keller is best known as an activist for the rights of people with disabilities, but she was also a radical socialist who advocated for many oppressed groups. Before she could become such a strong force for social justice, she needed to acquire language—no easy task for a deaf and blind child at a time when people with disabilities had little access to education.
Helen was born on June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, a small town in Alabama. She was a bright and confident toddler, but at only nineteen months old, she became very sick. The doctors thought she would die. Fortunately, Helen survived, but the illness left her unable to see and hear.
Helen spent a lot of time on her mother’s lap or holding on to her skirt while she followed her around. She used gestures to make her wishes known, though she knew that other people moved their mouths to communicate. She would sometimes stand between two adults, touching their lips—but when she tried moving her own lips, no one understood her.
When Helen was five, her sister Mildred was born. Helen did not appreciate this new baby at all. Now Mildred sat on her mother’s lap and took up a lot of her mother’s time and attention.
As a child, Helen liked to play with a little girl named Martha Washington, who was the daughter of the family’s cook. Martha was two or three years older and she understood Helen’s signs and gestures. Helen could be very bossy: she knew what she wanted and was prepared to fight to get it, so she usually got her way.
The two girls spent a lot of time in the kitchen. They helped make ice cream, ground coffee beans, kneaded balls of dough, and fed the hens and turkeys that gathered around the kitchen steps. One time, a turkey stole a tomato from Helen’s hand and ran off with it. That gave Helen and Martha an idea: the girls took a freshly iced cake from the kitchen, carried it to the woodpile, and ate the whole thing. Afterward, Helen was very sick.
Helen had fun with Martha, but she still had no language to communicate with. She often had angry outbursts and broke down in tears, frustrated and exhausted from trying to express herself. When she was six, her parents took her to Washington, D.C., to see Alexander Graham Bell—the man who invented the telephone. He said that Helen could be educated and told them how to find a teacher.
Helen later described her teacher’s arrival as the most important day of her life. Anne Sullivan was twenty years old, and she was determined to help Helen communicate. On their first morning together, Anne gave Helen a doll. Taking Helen’s hand, she used the manual alphabet to fingerspell D-O-L-L into it. Curious about this new game, Helen spelled D-O-L-L back to her teacher. She was very pleased with herself and ran downstairs to show her mother her new signs. She was on her way to learning language, but she did not yet understand that this combination of signs meant “doll,” or that there was a word to go with every object.
Helen was sometimes annoyed by her new teacher’s interference. “She is very quick tempered and willful,” Anne wrote in a letter soon after her arrival. But Anne was patient, persistent, and firm. Over and over, she spelled the names of everyday objects into Helen’s hand. Helen quickly learned to spell the words back, but she was still just imitating her teacher.
A month after Anne’s arrival, they had a breakthrough. Helen was holding her mug under the water spout while Anne pumped water to fill it; as the mug filled and cold water rushed over Helen’s hand, Anne spelled W-A-T-E-R into Helen’s free hand. Helen later described the moment in her memoir: “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!”
Helen needed more than individual words, however. She needed to be exposed to language in the way most children are: by being surrounded by it. So her teacher signed into her hands from morning to night, using full sentences, new words, unfamiliar expressions. Helen learned rapidly. She even tried to teach her new signs to her dog, Belle, by grabbing her paws and moving her toes!
Helen worked so hard that her parents and Anne became worried. She fingerspelled constantly, not even wanting to stop to eat. They took her to a doctor who diagnosed her with “an overactive mind.” Anne tried to encourage Helen to slow down, but Helen was unstoppable. She began learning to read and write. She knew that Anne wrote letters in Braille to other blind children, and she began learning to write letters by herself.
One day, baby Mildred managed to grab one of Helen’s letters. Helen pulled the soggy paper from her sister’s mouth and gave Mildred a smack. Anne swooped in and picked up the crying baby. “Wrong girl did eat letter,” Helen told her, fingerspelling the words. “Helen did slap very wrong girl.” She said that she had told Mildred “no, no, no many times.”
Anne explained that Mildred did not understand Helen’s signs, and that she needed to be gentle with the baby. Helen ran upstairs, and when she returned, she had a letter written in Braille. She gave it to Mildred. “Baby not think,” she told her. “Helen will give baby pretty letter. Baby can eat all the words.” It was the beginning of what eventually became a close relationship between the two sisters.
When Helen was almost eight, she was invited to tour the Perkins Institution for the Blind, in Boston. Helen had been writing to the school’s director Michael Anagos, and without her knowledge, he had been publishing her letters. Helen was becoming known throughout the country, but she wasn’t yet aware of it. She enjoyed meeting other children at Perkins, and over the next few years, she was an unofficial student at the school. She was given access to a library of Braille books, and it was through this world of literature that she began to develop an awareness of human suffering.
When Helen was eleven, she wrote a story called “The Frost King” and sent it to Mr. Aganos. He was impressed, but it soon became clear that the story was similar to one published several years earlier. Mr. Aganos accused Helen of plagiarism and had her questioned for two hours by a panel of judges. They eventually accepted that she had not intended to copy the story, which had been told to her when she was younger, but Helen was devastated. Soon after, she left the school. Her confidence was badly shaken, and for a while she was scared that her thoughts and words might not be her own. So Anne encouraged her to write about her own life. Helen’s article began, “Written wholly without help of any sort by a deaf and blind girl, twelve years old . . .”
During her teens, Helen continued her studies with Anne. She learned to lip-read by placing her hand on the speaker’s mouth and throat, and she also learned to speak. She went sailing in the summer and tobogganing in the winter. She loved to ride her horse and walk with her dogs. She met many well-known people, including the writer Mark Twain, who became a great friend and supporter.
It was as a teenager that Helen began developing her ideas about social justice. Anne had grown up in great poverty. She took Helen to visit New York’s Lower East Side, a poor area where many new immigrants lived. Helen was deeply moved. She found it hard to understand how wealthy people could bear to live in their “fine houses” while others struggled to survive.
At age twenty, Helen began her university studies at Radcliffe College, becoming the first deaf-blind person to earn a university degree. She joined the Socialist Party, writing letters and articles supporting the rights of workers and women and taking a stand against child labor. She supported the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People), and she fought for the rights of deaf, blind, and disabled people. She became a peace activist as well. Helen visited thirty-five countries, giving lectures and reaching the hearts and minds of countless people around the world. In 1964, at age eighty-four, Helen Keller was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in recognition of her contributions to her country.
Copyright © 2019 by Robin Stevenson, illustrated by Allison Steinfeld. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.