“Baby–not think. Helen will give baby pretty letter,” and with that she ran upstairs and brought down a neatly folded sheet of braille, on which she had written some words, and gave it to Mildred, saying, “Baby can eat all words.”
September 18, 1887.
I do not wonder you were surprised to hear that I was going to write something for the report. I do not know myself how it happened, except that I got tired of saying “no,” and Captain Keller urged me to do it. He agreed with Mr. Anagnos that it was my duty to give others the benefit of my experience. Besides, they said Helen’s wonderful deliverance might be a boon to other afflicted children.
When I sit down to write, my thoughts freeze, and when I get them on paper they look like wooden soldiers all in a row, and if a live one happens along, I put him in a strait-jacket. It’s easy enough, however, to say Helen is wonderful, because she really is. I kept a record of everything she said last week, and I found that she knows six hundred words. This does not mean, however, that she always uses them correctly. Sometimes her sentences are like Chinese puzzles; but they are the kind of puzzles children make when they try to express their half-formed ideas by means of arbitrary language. She has the true language-impulse, and shows great fertility of resource in making the words at her command convey her meaning.
Lately she has been much interested in colour. She found the word “brown” in her primer and wanted to know its meaning. I told her that her hair was brown, and she asked, “Is brown very pretty?” After we had been all over the house, and I had told her the colour of everything she touched, she suggested that we go to the hen-houses and barns; but I told her she must wait until another day because I was very tired. We sat in the hammock; but there was no rest for the weary there. Helen was eager to know “more colour.” I wonder if she has any vague idea of colour–any reminiscent impression of light and sound. It seems as if a child who could see and hear until her nineteenth month must retain some of her first impressions, though ever so faintly. Helen talks a great deal about things that she cannot know of through the sense of touch. She asks many questions about the sky, day and night, the ocean and mountains. She likes to have me tell her what I see in pictures.
But I seem to have lost the thread of my discourse. “What colour is think?” was one of the restful questions she asked, as we swung to and fro in the hammock. I told her that when we are happy our thoughts are bright, and when we are naughty they are sad. Quick as a flash she said, “My think is white, Viney’s think is black.” You see, she had an idea that the colour of our thoughts matched that of our skin. I couldn’t help laughing, for at that very moment Viney was shouting at the top of her voice:
“I long to sit on dem jasper walls
And see dem sinners stumble and fall!”
October 3, 1887.
My account for the report is finished and sent off. I have two copies, and will send you one; but you mustn’t show it to anybody. It’s Mr. Anagnos’s property until it is published.
I suppose the little girls enjoyed Helen’s letter. She wrote it out of her own head, as the children say.
She talks a great deal about what she will do when she goes to Boston. She asked the other day, “Who made all things and Boston?” She says Mildred will not go there because “Baby does cry all days.”
October 25, 1887.
Helen wrote another letter to the little girls yesterday, and her father sent it to Mr. Anagnos. Ask him to let you see it. She has begun to use the pronouns of her own accord. This morning I happened to say, “Helen will go upstairs.” She laughed and said, “Teacher is wrong. You will go upstairs.” This is another great forward step. Thus it always is. Yesterday’s perplexities are strangely simple to-day, and to-day’s difficulties become to-morrow’s pastime.
The rapid development of Helen’s mind is beautiful to watch. I doubt if any teacher ever had a work of such absorbing interest. There must have been one lucky star in the heavens at my birth, and I am just beginning to feel its beneficent influence.
I had two letters from Mr. Anagnos last week. He is more grateful for my report than the English idiom will express. Now he wants a picture “of darling Helen and her illustrious teacher, to grace the pages of the forthcoming annual report.”
You have probably read, ere this, Helen’s second letter to the little girls. I am aware that the progress which she has made between the writing of the two letters must seem incredible. Only those who are with her daily can realize the rapid advancement which she is making in the acquisition of language. You will see from her letter that she uses many pronouns correctly. She rarely misuses or omits one in conversation. Her passion for writing letters and putting her thoughts upon paper grows more intense. She now tells stories in which the imagination plays an important part. She is also beginning to realize that she is not like other children. The other day she asked, “What do my eyes do?” I told her that I could see things with my eyes, and that she could see them with her fingers. After thinking a moment she said, “My eyes are bad!” then she changed it into “My eyes are sick!”
Miss Sullivan’s first report, which was published in the official report of the Perkins Institution for the year 1887, is a short summary of what is fully recorded in the letters. Here follows the last part, beginning with the great day, April 5th, when Helen learned water.
In her reports Miss Sullivan speaks of “lessons” as if they came in regular order. This is the effect of putting it all in a summary. “Lesson” is too formal for the continuous daily work.
One day I took her to the cistern. As the water gushed from the pump I spelled “w-a-t-e-r.” Instantly she tapped my hand for a repetition, and then made the word herself with a radiant face. Just then the nurse came into the cistern-house bringing her little sister. I put Helen’s hand on the baby and formed the letters “b-a-b-y,” which she repeated without help and with the light of a new intelligence in her face.
On our way back to the house everything she touched had to be named for her, and repetition was seldom necessary. Neither the length of the word nor the combination of letters seems to make any difference to the child. Indeed, she remembers HELIOTROPE and CHRYSANTHEMUM more readily than she does shorter names. At the end of August she knew 625 words.
This lesson was followed by one on words indicative of place-relations. Her dress was put IN a trunk, and then ON it, and these prepositions were spelled for her. Very soon she learned the difference between ON and IN, though it was some time before she could use these words in sentences of her own. Whenever it was possible she was made the actor in the lesson, and was delighted to stand ON the chair, and to be put INTO the wardrobe. In connection with this lesson she learned the names of the members of the family and the word IS. “Helen is in wardrobe,” “Mildred is in crib,” “Box is on table,” “Papa is on bed,” are specimens of sentences constructed by her during the latter part of April.
Next came a lesson on words expressive of positive quality. For the first lesson I had two balls, one made of worsted, large and soft, the other a bullet. She perceived the difference in size at once. Taking the bullet she made her habitual sign for SMALL–that is, by pinching a little bit of the skin of one hand. Then she took the other ball and made her sign for LARGE by spreading both hands over it. I substituted the adjectives LARGE and SMALL for those signs. Then her attention was called to the hardness of the one ball and the softness of the other, and she learned SOFT and HARD. A few minutes afterward she felt of her little sister’s head and said to her mother, “Mildred’s head is small and hard.” Next I tried to teach her the meaning of FAST and SLOW. She helped me wind some worsted one day, first rapidly and afterward slowly. I then said to her with the finger alphabet, “wind fast,” or “wind slow,” holding her hands and showing her how to do as I wished. The next day, while exercising, she spelled to me, “Helen wind fast,” and began to walk rapidly. Then she said, “Helen wind slow,” again suiting the action to the words.
I now thought it time to teach her to read printed words. A slip on which was printed, in raised letters, the word BOX was placed on the object, and the same experiment was tried with a great many articles, but she did not immediately comprehend that the label-name represented the thing. Then I took an alphabet sheet and put her finger on the letter A, at the same time making A with my fingers. She moved her finger from one printed character to another as I formed each letter on my fingers. She learned all the letters, both capital and small, in one day. Next I turned to the first page of the primer and made her touch the word CAT, spelling it on my fingers at the same time. Instantly she caught the idea, and asked me to find DOG and many other words. Indeed, she was much displeased because I could not find her name in the book. Just then I had no sentences in raised letters which she could understand; but she would sit for hours feeling each word in her book. When she touched one with which she was familiar, a peculiarly sweet expression lighted her face, and we saw her countenance growing sweeter and more earnest every day. About this time I sent a list of the words she knew to Mr. Anagnos, and he very kindly had them printed for her. Her mother and I cut up several sheets of printed words so that she could arrange them into sentences. This delighted her more than anything she had yet done; and the practice thus obtained prepared the way for the writing lessons. There was no difficulty in making her understand how to write the same sentences with pencil and paper which she made every day with the slips, and she very soon perceived that she need not confine herself to phrases already learned, but could communicate any thought that was passing through her mind. I put one of the writing boards used by the blind between the folds of the paper on the table, and allowed her to examine an alphabet of the square letters, such as she was to make. I then guided her hand to form the sentence, “Cat does drink milk.” When she finished it she was overjoyed. She carried it to her mother, who spelled it to her.
Day after day she moved her pencil in the same tracks along the grooved paper, never for a moment expressing the least impatience or sense of fatigue.
As she had now learned to express her ideas on paper, I next taught her the braille system. She learned it gladly when she discovered that she could herself read what she had written; and this still affords her constant pleasure. For a whole evening she will sit at the table writing whatever comes into her busy brain; and I seldom find any difficulty in reading what she has written.
Her progress in arithmetic has been equally remarkable. She can add and subtract with great rapidity up to the sum of one hundred; and she knows the multiplication tables as far as the FIVES. She was working recently with the number forty, when I said to her, “Make twos.” She replied immediately, “Twenty twos make forty.” Later I said, “Make fifteen threes and count.” I wished her to make the groups of threes and supposed she would then have to count them in order to know what number fifteen threes would make. But instantly she spelled the answer: “Fifteen threes make forty-five.”
On being told that she was white and that one of the servants was black, she concluded that all who occupied a similar menial position were of the same hue; and whenever I asked her the colour of a servant she would say “black.” When asked the colour of some one whose occupation she did not know she seemed bewildered, and finally said “blue.”
She has never been told anything about death or the burial of the body, and yet on entering the cemetery for the first time in her life, with her mother and me, to look at some flowers, she laid her hand on our eyes and repeatedly spelled “cry–cry.” Her eyes actually filled with tears. The flowers did not seem to give her pleasure, and she was very quiet while we stayed there.
On another occasion while walking with me she seemed conscious of the presence of her brother, although we were distant from him. She spelled his name repeatedly and started in the direction in which he was coming.
When walking or riding she often gives the names of the people we meet almost as soon as we recognize them.
The letters take up the account again.
November 13, 1887.
We took Helen to the circus, and had “the time of our lives”! The circus people were much interested in Helen, and did everything they could to make her first circus a memorable event. They let her feel the animals whenever it was safe. She fed the elephants, and was allowed to climb up on the back of the largest, and sit in the lap of the “Oriental Princess,” while the elephant marched majestically around the ring. She felt some young lions. They were as gentle as kittens; but I told her they would get wild and fierce as they grew older. She said to the keeper, “I will take the baby lions home and teach them to be mild.” The keeper of the bears made one big black fellow stand on his hind legs and hold out his great paw to us, which Helen shook politely. She was greatly delighted with the monkeys and kept her hand on the star performer while he went through his tricks, and laughed heartily when he took off his hat to the audience. One cute little fellow stole her hair-ribbon, and another tried to snatch the flowers out of her hat. I don’t know who had the best time, the monkeys, Helen or the spectators. One of the leopards licked her hands, and the man in charge of the giraffes lifted her up in his arms so that she could feel their ears and see how tall they were. She also felt a Greek chariot, and the charioteer would have liked to take her round the ring; but she was afraid of “many swift horses.” The riders and clowns and rope-walkers were all glad to let the little blind girl feel their costumes and follow their motions whenever it was possible, and she kissed them all, to show her gratitude. Some of them cried, and the wild man of Borneo shrank from her sweet little face in terror. She has talked about nothing but the circus ever since. In order to answer her questions, I have been obliged to read a great deal about animals. At present I feel like a jungle on wheels!
December 12, 1887.
I find it hard to realize that Christmas is almost here, in spite of the fact that Helen talks about nothing else. Do you remember what a happy time we had last Christmas?
Helen has learned to tell the time at last, and her father is going to give her a watch for Christmas.
Helen is as eager to have stories told her as any hearing child I ever knew. She has made me repeat the story of little Red Riding Hood so often that I believe I could say it backward. She likes stories that make her cry–I think we all do, it’s so nice to feel sad when you’ve nothing particular to be sad about. I am teaching her little rhymes and verses, too. They fix beautiful thoughts in her memory. I think, too, that they quicken all the child’s faculties, because they stimulate the imagination. Of course I don’t try to explain everything. If I did, there would be no opportunity for the play of fancy. TOO MUCH EXPLANATION DIRECTS THE CHILD’S ATTENTION TO WORDS AND SENTENCES, SO THAT HE FAILS TO GET THE THOUGHT AS A WHOLE. I do not think anyone can read, or talk for that matter, until he forgets words and sentences in the technical sense.
January 1, 1888.
It is a great thing to feel that you are of some use in the world, that you are necessary to somebody. Helen’s dependence on me for almost everything makes me strong and glad.
Christmas week was a very busy one here, too. Helen is invited to all the children’s entertainments, and I take her to as many as I can. I want her to know children and to be with them as much as possible. Several little girls have learned to spell on their fingers and are very proud of the accomplishment. One little chap, about seven, was persuaded to learn the letters, and he spelled his name for Helen. She was delighted, and showed her joy, by hugging and kissing him, much to his embarrassment.
Saturday the school-children had their tree, and I took Helen. It was the first Christmas tree she had ever seen, and she was puzzled, and asked many questions. “Who made tree grow in house? Why? Who put many things on tree?” She objected to its miscellaneous fruits and began to remove them, evidently thinking they were all meant for her. It was not difficult, however, to make her understand that there was a present for each child, and to her great delight she was permitted to hand the gifts to the children. There were several presents for herself. She placed them in a chair, resisting all temptation to look at them until every child had received his gifts. One little girl had fewer presents than the rest, and Helen insisted on sharing her gifts with her. It was very sweet to see the children’s eager interest in Helen, and their readiness to give her pleasure. The exercises began at nine, and it was one o’clock before we could leave. My fingers and head ached; but Helen was as fresh and full of spirit as when we left home.
After dinner it began to snow, and we had a good frolic and an interesting lesson about the snow. Sunday morning the ground was covered, and Helen and the cook’s children and I played snowball. By noon the snow was all gone. It was the first snow I had seen here, and it made me a little homesick. The Christmas season has furnished many lessons, and added scores of new words to Helen’s vocabulary.
For weeks we did nothing but talk and read and tell each other stories about Christmas. Of course I do not try to explain all the new words, nor does Helen fully understand the little stories I tell her; but constant repetition fixes the words and phrases in the mind, and little by little the meaning will come to her. I SEE NO SENSE IN “FAKING” CONVERSATION FOR THE SAKE OF TEACHING LANGUAGE. IT’S STUPID AND DEADENING TO PUPIL AND TEACHER. TALK SHOULD BE NATURAL AND HAVE FOR ITS OBJECT AN EXCHANGE OF IDEAS. If there is nothing in the child’s mind to communicate, it hardly seems worth while to require him to write on the blackboard, or spell on his fingers, cut and dried sentences about “the cat,” “the bird,” “a dog.” I HAVE TRIED FROM THE BEGINNING TO TALK NATURALLY TO HELEN AND TO TEACH HER TO TELL ME ONLY THINGS THAT INTEREST HER AND ASK QUESTIONS ONLY FOR THE SAKE OF FINDING OUT WHAT SHE WANTS TO KNOW. When I see that she is eager to tell me something, but is hampered because she does not know the words, I supply them and the necessary idioms, and we get along finely. The child’s eagerness and interest carry her over many obstacles that would be our undoing if we stopped to define and explain everything. What would happen, do you think, if some one should try to measure our intelligence by our ability to define the commonest words we use? I fear me, if I were put to such a test, I should be consigned to the primary class in a school for the feeble-minded.
It was touching and beautiful to see Helen enjoy her first Christmas. Of course, she hung her stocking–two of them lest Santa Claus should forget one, and she lay awake for a long time and got up two or three times to see if anything had happened. When I told her that Santa Claus would not come until she was asleep, she shut her eyes and said, “He will think girl is asleep.” She was awake the first thing in the morning, and ran to the fireplace for her stocking; and when she found that Santa Claus had filled both stockings, she danced about for a minute, then grew very quiet, and came to ask me if I thought Santa Claus had made a mistake, and thought there were two little girls, and would come back for the gifts when he discovered his mistake. The ring you sent her was in the toe of the stocking, and when I told her you gave it to Santa Claus for her, she said, “I do love Mrs. Hopkins.” She had a trunk and clothes for Nancy, and her comment was, “Now Nancy will go to party.” When she saw the braille slate and paper, she said, “I will write many letters, and I will thank Santa Claus very much.” It was evident that every one, especially Captain and Mrs. Keller, was deeply moved at the thought of the difference between this bright Christmas and the last, when their little girl had no conscious part in the Christmas festivities. As we came downstairs, Mrs. Keller said to me with tears in her eyes, “Miss Annie, I thank God every day of my life for sending you to us; but I never realized until this morning what a blessing you have been to us.” Captain Keller took my hand, but could not speak. But his silence was more eloquent than words. My heart, too, was full of gratitude and solemn joy.
The other day Helen came across the word grandfather in a little story and asked her mother, “Where is grandfather?” meaning her grandfather. Mrs. Keller replied, “He is dead.” “Did father shoot him?” Helen asked, and added, “I will eat grandfather for dinner.” So far, her only knowledge of death is in connection with things to eat. She knows that her father shoots partridges and deer and other game.
This morning she asked me the meaning of “carpenter,” and the question furnished the text for the day’s lesson. After talking about the various things that carpenters make, she asked me, “Did carpenter make me?” and before I could answer, she spelled quickly, “No, no, photographer made me in Sheffield.”
One of the greatest iron furnaces has been started in Sheffield, and we went over the other evening to see them make a “run.” Helen felt the heat and asked, “Did the sun fall?”
January 9, 1888.
The report came last night. I appreciate the kind things Mr. Anagnos has said about Helen and me; but his extravagant way of saying them rubs me the wrong way. The simple facts would be so much more convincing! Why, for instance, does he take the trouble to ascribe motives to me that I never dreamed of? You know, and he knows, and I know, that my motive in coming here was not in any sense philanthropic. How ridiculous it is to say I had drunk so copiously of the noble spirit of Dr. Howe that I was fired with the desire to rescue from darkness and obscurity the little Alabamian! I came here simply because circumstances made it necessary for me to earn my living, and I seized upon the first opportunity that offered itself, although I did not suspect nor did he, that I had any special fitness for the work.
January 26, 1888.
I suppose you got Helen’s letter. The little rascal has taken it into her head not to write with a pencil. I wanted her to write to her Uncle Frank this morning, but she objected. She said: “Pencil is very tired in head. I will write Uncle Frank braille letter.” I said, “But Uncle Frank cannot read braille.” “I will teach him,” she said. I explained that Uncle Frank was old, and couldn’t learn braille easily. In a flash she answered, “I think Uncle Frank is much (too) old to read very small letters.” Finally I persuaded her to write a few lines; but she broke her pencil six times before she finished it. I said to her, “You are a naughty girl.” “No,” she replied, “pencil is very weak.” I think her objection to pencil-writing is readily accounted for by the fact that she has been asked to write so many specimens for friends and strangers. You know how the children at the Institution detest it. It is irksome because the process is so slow, and they cannot read what they have written or correct their mistakes.
Helen is more and more interested in colour. When I told her that Mildred’s eyes were blue, she asked, “Are they like wee skies?” A little while after I had told her that a carnation that had been given her was red, she puckered up her mouth and said, “Lips are like one pink.” I told her they were tulips; but of course she didn’t understand the word-play. I can’t believe that the colour-impressions she received during the year and a half she could see and hear are entirely lost. Everything we have seen and heard is in the mind somewhere. It may be too vague and confused to be recognizable, but it is there all the same, like the landscape we lose in the deepening twilight.
February 10, 1888.
We got home last night. We had a splendid time in Memphis, but I didn’t rest much. It was nothing but excitement from first to last–drives, luncheons, receptions, and all that they involve when you have an eager, tireless child like Helen on your hands. She talked incessantly. I don’t know what I should have done, had some of the young people not learned to talk with her. They relieved me as much as possible. But even then I can never have a quiet half hour to myself. It is always: “Oh, Miss Sullivan, please come and tell us what Helen means,” or “Miss Sullivan, won’t you please explain this to Helen? We can’t make her understand.” I believe half the white population of Memphis called on us. Helen was petted and caressed enough to spoil an angel; but I do not think it is possible to spoil her, she is too unconscious of herself, and too loving.
The stores in Memphis are very good, and I managed to spend all the money that I had with me. One day Helen said, “I must buy Nancy a very pretty hat.” I said, “Very well, we will go shopping this afternoon.” She had a silver dollar and a dime. When we reached the shop, I asked her how much she would pay for Nancy’s hat. She answered promptly, “I will pay ten cents.” “What will you do with the dollar?” I asked. “I will buy some good candy to take to Tuscumbia,” was her reply.
We visited the Stock Exchange and a steamboat. Helen was greatly interested in the boat, and insisted on being shown every inch of it from the engine to the flag on the flagstaff. I was gratified to read what the Nation had to say about Helen last week.
Captain Keller has had two interesting letters since the publication of the “Report,” one from Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, and the other from Dr. Edward Everett Hale. Dr. Hale claims kinship with Helen, and seems very proud of his little cousin. Dr. Bell writes that Helen’s progress is without a parallel in the education of the deaf, or something like that and he says many nice things about her teacher.
March 5, 1888.
I did not have a chance to finish my letter yesterday. Miss Ev. came up to help me make a list of words Helen has learned. We have got as far as P, and there are 900 words to her credit. I had Helen begin a journal March 1st.[Most of this journal was lost. Fortunately, however, Helen Keller wrote so many letters and exercises that there is no lack of records of that sort.] I don’t know how long she will keep it up. It’s rather stupid business, I think. Just now she finds it great fun. She seems to like to tell all she knows. This is what Helen wrote Sunday:
“I got up, washed my face and hands, combed my hair, picked three dew violets for Teacher and ate my breakfast. After breakfast I played with dolls short. Nancy was cross. Cross is cry and kick. I read in my book about large, fierce animals. Fierce is much cross and strong and very hungry. I do not love fierce animals. I wrote letter to Uncle James. He lives in Hotsprings. He is doctor. Doctor makes sick girl well. I do not like sick. Then I ate my dinner. I like much icecream very much. After dinner father went to Birmingham on train far away. I had letter from Robert. He loves me. He said Dear Helen, Robert was glad to get a letter from dear, sweet little Helen. I will come to see you when the sun shines. Mrs. Newsum is Robert’s wife. Robert is her husband. Robert and I will run and jump and hop and dance and swing and talk about birds and flowers and trees and grass and Jumbo and Pearl will go with us. Teacher will say, We are silly. She is funny. Funny makes us laugh. Natalie is a good girl and does not cry. Mildred does cry. She will be a nice girl in many days and run and play with me. Mrs. Graves is making short dresses for Natalie. Mr. Mayo went to Duckhill and brought home many sweet flowers. Mr. Mayo and Mr. Farris and Mr. Graves love me and Teacher. I am going to Memphis to see them soon, and they will hug and kiss me. Thornton goes to school and gets his face dirty. Boy must be very careful. After supper I played romp with Teacher in bed. She buried me under the pillows and then I grew very slow like tree out of ground. Now, I will go to bed. HELEN KELLER.”
April 16, 1888.
We are just back from church. Captain Keller said at breakfast this morning that he wished I would take Helen to church. The Presbytery would be there in a body, and he wanted the ministers to see Helen. The Sunday-school was in session when we arrived, and I wish you could have seen the sensation Helen’s entrance caused. The children were so pleased to see her at Sunday-school, they paid no attention to their teachers, but rushed out of their seats and surrounded us. She kissed them all, boys and girls, willing or unwilling. She seemed to think at first that the children all belonged to the visiting ministers; but soon she recognized some little friends among them, and I told her the ministers didn’t bring their children with them. She looked disappointed and said, “I’ll send them many kisses.” One of the ministers wished me to ask Helen, “What do ministers do?” She said, “They read and talk loud to people to be good.” He put her answer down in his note book. When it was time for the church service to begin, she was in such a state of excitement that I thought it best to take her away; but Captain Keller said, “No, she will be all right.” So there was nothing to do but stay. It was impossible to keep Helen quiet. She hugged and kissed me, and the quiet-looking divine who sat on the other side of her. He gave her his watch to play with; but that didn’t keep her still. She wanted to show it to the little boy in the seat behind us. When the communion service began, she smelt the wine, and sniffed so loud that every one in the church could hear. When the wine was passed to our neighbour, he was obliged to stand up to prevent her taking it away from him. I never was so glad to get out of a place as I was to leave that church! I tried to hurry Helen out-of-doors, but she kept her arm extended, and every coat-tail she touched must needs turn round and give an account of the children he left at home, and receive kisses according to their number. Everybody laughed at her antics, and you would have thought they were leaving a place of amusement rather than a church. Captain Keller invited some of the ministers to dinner. Helen was irrepressible. She described in the most animated pantomime, supplemented by spelling, what she was going to do in Brewster. Finally she got up from the table and went through the motion of picking seaweed and shells, and splashing in the water, holding up her skirts higher than was proper under the circumstances. Then she threw herself on the floor and began to swim so energetically that some of us thought we should be kicked out of our chairs! Her motions are often more expressive than any words, and she is as graceful as a nymph.
I wonder if the days seem as interminable to you as they do to me. We talk and plan and dream about nothing but Boston, Boston, Boston. I think Mrs. Keller has definitely decided to go with us, but she will not stay all summer.
May 15, 1888.
Do you realize that this is the last letter I shall write to you for a long, long time? The next word that you receive from me will be in a yellow envelope, and it will tell you when we shall reach Boston. I am too happy to write letters; but I must tell you about our visit to Cincinnati.
We spent a delightful week with the “doctors.” Dr. Keller met us in Memphis. Almost every one on the train was a physician, and Dr. Keller seemed to know them all. When we reached Cincinnati, we found the place full of doctors. There were several prominent Boston physicians among them. We stayed at the Burnet House. Everybody was delighted with Helen. All the learned men marveled at her intelligence and gaiety. There is something about her that attracts people. I think it is her joyous interest in everything and everybody.
Wherever she went she was the centre of interest. She was delighted with the orchestra at the hotel, and whenever the music began she danced round the room, hugging and kissing every one she happened to touch. Her happiness impressed all; nobody seemed to pity her. One gentleman said to Dr. Keller, “I have lived long and seen many happy faces; but I have never seen such a radiant face as this child’s before to-night.” Another said, “Damn me! but I’d give everything I own in the world to have that little girl always near me.” But I haven’t time to write all the pleasant things people said–they would make a very large book, and the kind things they did for us would fill another volume. Dr. Keller distributed the extracts from the report that Mr. Anagnos sent me, and he could have disposed of a thousand if he had had them. Do you remember Dr. Garcelon, who was Governor of Maine several years ago? He took us to drive one afternoon, and wanted to give Helen a doll; but she said: “I do not like too many children. Nancy is sick, and Adeline is cross, and Ida is very bad.” We laughed until we cried, she was so serious about it. “What would you like, then?” asked the Doctor. “Some beautiful gloves to talk with,” she answered. The Doctor was puzzled. He had never heard of “talking-gloves”; but I explained that she had seen a glove on which the alphabet was printed, and evidently thought they could be bought. I told him he could buy some gloves if he wished, and that I would have the alphabet stamped on them.
We lunched with Mr. Thayer (your former pastor) and his wife. He asked me how I had taught Helen adjectives and the names of abstract ideas like goodness and happiness. These same questions had been asked me a hundred times by the learned doctors. It seems strange that people should marvel at what is really so simple. Why, it is as easy to teach the name of an idea, if it is clearly formulated in the child’s mind, as to teach the name of an object. It would indeed be a herculean task to teach the words if the ideas did not already exist in the child’s mind. If his experiences and observations hadn’t led him to the concepts, SMALL, LARGE, GOOD, BAD, SWEET, SOUR, he would have nothing to attach the word-tags to.
I, little ignorant I, found myself explaining to the wise men of the East and the West such simple things as these: If you give a child something sweet, and he wags his tongue and smacks his lips and looks pleased, he has a very definite sensation; and if, every time he has this experience, he hears the word SWEET, or has it spelled into his hand, he will quickly adopt this arbitrary sign for his sensation. Likewise, if you put a bit of lemon on his tongue, he puckers up his lips and tries to spit it out; and after he has had this experience a few times, if you offer him a lemon, he shuts his mouth and makes faces, clearly indicating that he remembers the unpleasant sensation. You label it SOUR, and he adopts your symbol. If you had called these sensations respectively BLACK and WHITE, he would have adopted them as readily; but he would mean by BLACK and WHITE the same things that he means by SWEET and SOUR. In the same way the child learns from many experiences to differentiate his feelings, and we name them for him–GOOD, BAD, GENTLE, ROUGH, HAPPY, SAD. It is not the word, but the capacity to experience the sensation that counts in his education.
This extract from one of Miss Sullivan’s letters is added because it contains interesting casual opinions stimulated by observing the methods of others.
We visited a little school for the deaf. We were very kindly received, and Helen enjoyed meeting the children. Two of the teachers knew the manual alphabet, and talked to her without an interpreter. They were astonished at her command of language. Not a child in the school, they said, had anything like Helen’s facility of expression, and some of them had been under instruction for two or three years. I was incredulous at first; but after I had watched the children at work for a couple of hours, I knew that what I had been told was true, and I wasn’t surprised. In one room some little tots were standing before the blackboard, painfully constructing “simple sentences.” A little girl had written: “I have a new dress. It is a pretty dress. My mamma made my pretty new dress. I love mamma.” A curly-headed little boy was writing: “I have a large ball. I like to kick my large ball.” When we entered the room, the children’s attention was riveted on Helen. One of them pulled me by the sleeve and said, “Girl is blind.” The teacher was writing on the blackboard: “The girl’s name is Helen. She is deaf. She cannot see. We are very sorry.” I said: “Why do you write those sentences on the board? Wouldn’t the children understand if you talked to them about Helen?” The teacher said something about getting the correct construction, and continued to construct an exercise out of Helen. I asked her if the little girl who had written about the new dress was particularly pleased with her dress. “No,” she replied, “I think not; but children learn better if they write about things that concern them personally.” It seemed all so mechanical and difficult, my heart ached for the poor little children. Nobody thinks of making a hearing child say, “I have a pretty new dress,” at the beginning. These children were older in years, it is true, than the baby who lisps, “Papa kiss baby–pretty,” and fills out her meaning by pointing to her new dress; but their ability to understand and use language was no greater.
There was the same difficulty throughout the school. In every classroom I saw sentences on the blackboard, which evidently had been written to illustrate some grammatical rule, or for the purpose of using words that had previously been taught in the same, or in some other connection. This sort of thing may be necessary in some stages of education; but it isn’t the way to acquire language. NOTHING, I THINK, CRUSHES THE CHILD’S IMPULSE TO TALK NATURALLY MORE EFFECTUALLY THAN THESE BLACKBOARD EXERCISES. The schoolroom is not the place to teach any young child language, least of all the deaf child. He must be kept as unconscious as the hearing child of the fact that he is learning words,AND HE SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO PRATTLE ON HIS FINGERS, OR WITH HIS PENCIL, IN MONOSYLLABLES IF HE CHOOSES, UNTIL SUCH TIME AS HIS GROWING INTELLIGENCE DEMANDS THE SENTENCE. Language should not be associated in his mind with endless hours in school, with puzzling questions in grammar, or with anything that is an enemy to joy. But I must not get into the habit of criticizing other people’s methods too severely. I may be as far from the straight road as they.
Miss Sullivan’s second report brings the account down to October 1st, 1888.
During the past year Helen has enjoyed excellent health. Her eyes and ears have been examined by specialists, and it is their opinion that she cannot have the slightest perception of either light or sound.
It is impossible to tell exactly to what extent the senses of smell and taste aid her in gaining information respecting physical qualities; but, according to eminent authority, these senses do exert a great influence on the mental and moral development. Dugald Stewart says, “Some of the most significant words relating to the human mind are borrowed from the sense of smell; and the conspicuous place which its sensations occupy in the poetical language of all nations shows how easily and naturally they ally themselves with the refined operations of the fancy and the moral emotions of the heart.” Helen certainly derives great pleasure from the exercise of these senses. On entering a greenhouse her countenance becomes radiant, and she will tell the names of the flowers with which she is familiar, by the sense of smell alone. Her recollections of the sensations of smell are very vivid. She enjoys in anticipation the scent of a rose or a violet; and if she is promised a bouquet of these flowers, a peculiarly happy expression lights her face, indicating that in imagination she perceives their fragrance, and that it is pleasant to her. It frequently happens that the perfume of a flower or the flavour of a fruit recalls to her mind some happy event in home life, or a delightful birthday party.
Her sense of touch has sensibly increased during the year, and has gained in acuteness and delicacy. Indeed, her whole body is so finely organized that she seems to use it as a medium for bringing herself into closer relations with her fellow creatures. She is able not only to distinguish with great accuracy the different undulations of the air and the vibrations of the floor made by various sounds and motions, and to recognize her friends and acquaintances the instant she touches their hands or clothing, but she also perceives the state of mind of those around her. It is impossible for any one with whom Helen is conversing to be particularly happy or sad, and withhold the knowledge of this fact from her.
She observes the slightest emphasis placed upon a word in conversation, and she discovers meaning in every change of position, and in the varied play of the muscles of the hand. She responds quickly to the gentle pressure of affection, the pat of approval, the jerk of impatience, the firm motion of command, and to the many other variations of the almost infinite language of the feelings; and she has become so expert in interpreting this unconscious language of the emotions that she is often able to divine our very thoughts.
In my account of Helen last year, I mentioned several instances where she seemed to have called into use an inexplicable mental faculty; but it now seems to me, after carefully considering the matter, that this power may be explained by her perfect familiarity with the muscular variations of those with whom she comes into contact, caused by their emotions. She has been forced to depend largely upon this muscular sense as a means of ascertaining the mental condition of those about her. She has learned to connect certain movements of the body with anger, others with joy, and others still with sorrow. One day, while she was out walking with her mother and Mr. Anagnos, a boy threw a torpedo, which startled Mrs. Keller. Helen felt the change in her mother’s movements instantly, and asked, “What are we afraid of?” On one occasion, while walking on the Common with her, I saw a police officer taking a man to the station-house. The agitation which I felt evidently produced a perceptible physical change; for Helen asked, excitedly, “What do you see?”
A striking illustration of this strange power was recently shown while her ears were being examined by the aurists in Cincinnati. Several experiments were tried, to determine positively whether or not she had any perception of sound. All present were astonished when she appeared not only to hear a whistle, but also an ordinary tone of voice. She would turn her head, smile, and act as though she had heard what was said. I was then standing beside her, holding her hand. Thinking that she was receiving impressions from me, I put her hands upon the table, and withdrew to the opposite side of the room. The aurists then tried their experiments with quite different results. Helen remained motionless through them all, not once showing the least sign that she realized what was going on. At my suggestion, one of the gentlemen took her hand, and the tests were repeated. This time her countenance changed whenever she was spoken to, but there was not such a decided lighting up of the features as when I had held her hand.
In the account of Helen last year it was stated that she knew nothing about death, or the burial of the body; yet on entering a cemetery for the first time in her life, she showed signs of emotion–her eyes actually filling with tears.
A circumstance equally remarkable occurred last summer; but, before relating it, I will mention what she now knows with regard to death. Even before I knew her, she had handled a dead chicken, or bird, or some other small animal. Some time after the visit to the cemetery before referred to, Helen became interested in a horse that had met with an accident by which one of his legs had been badly injured, and she went daily with me to visit him. The wounded leg soon became so much worse that the horse was suspended from a beam. The animal groaned with pain, and Helen, perceiving his groans, was filled with pity. At last it became necessary to kill him, and, when Helen next asked to go and see him, I told her that he was DEAD. This was the first time that she had heard the word. I then explained that he had been shot to relieve him from suffering, and that he was now BURIED–put into the ground. I am inclined to believe that the idea of his having been intentionally shot did not make much impression upon her; but I think she did realize the fact that life was extinct in the horse as in the dead birds she had touched, and also that he had been put into the ground. Since this occurrence, I have used the word DEAD whenever occasion required, but with no further explanation of its meaning.
While making a visit at Brewster, Massachusetts, she one day accompanied my friend and me through the graveyard. She examined one stone after another, and seemed pleased when she could decipher a name. She smelt of the flowers, but showed no desire to pluck them; and, when I gathered a few for her, she refused to have them pinned on her dress. When her attention was drawn to a marble slab inscribed with the name FLORENCE in relief, she dropped upon the ground as though looking for something, then turned to me with a face full of trouble, and asked, “Were is poor little Florence?” I evaded the question, but she persisted. Turning to my friend, she asked, “Did you cry loud for poor little Florence?” Then she added: “I think she is very dead. Who put her in big hole?” As she continued to ask these distressing questions, we left the cemetery. Florence was the daughter of my friend, and was a young lady at the time of her death; but Helen had been told nothing about her, nor did she even know that my friend had had a daughter. Helen had been given a bed and carriage for her dolls, which she had received and used like any other gift. On her return to the house after her visit to the cemetery, she ran to the closet where these toys were kept, and carried them to my friend, saying, “They are poor little Florence’s.” This was true, although we were at a loss to understand how she guessed it. A letter written to her mother in the course of the following week gave an account of her impression in her own words:
“I put my little babies to sleep in Florence’s little bed, and I take them to ride in her carriage. Poor little Florence is dead. She was very sick and died. Mrs. H. did cry loud for her dear little child. She got in the ground, and she is very dirty, and she is cold. Florence was very lovely like Sadie, and Mrs. H. kissed her and hugged her much. Florence is very sad in big hole. Doctor gave her medicine to make her well, but poor Florence did not get well. When she was very sick she tossed and moaned in bed. Mrs. H. will go to see her soon.”
Notwithstanding the activity of Helen’s mind, she is a very natural child. She is fond of fun and frolic, and loves dearly to be with other children. She is never fretful or irritable, and I have never seen her impatient with her playmates because they failed to understand her. She will play for hours together with children who cannot understand a single word she spells, and it is pathetic to watch the eager gestures and excited pantomime through which her ideas and emotions find expression. Occasionally some little boy or girl will try to learn the manual alphabet. Then it is beautiful to observe with what patience, sweetness, and perseverance Helen endeavours to bring the unruly fingers of her little friend into proper position.
One day, while Helen was wearing a little jacket of which she was very proud, her mother said: “There is a poor little girl who has no cloak to keep her warm. Will you give her yours?” Helen began to pull off the jacket, saying, “I must give it to a poor little strange girl.”
She is very fond of children younger than herself, and a baby invariably calls forth all the motherly instincts of her nature. She will handle the baby as tenderly as the most careful nurse could desire. It is pleasant, too, to note her thoughtfulness for little children, and her readiness to yield to their whims.
She has a very sociable disposition, and delights in the companionship of those who can follow the rapid motions of her fingers; but if left alone she will amuse herself for hours at a time with her knitting or sewing.
She reads a great deal. She bends over her book with a look of intense interest, and as the forefinger of her left hand runs along the line, she spells out the words with the other hand; but often her motions are so rapid as to be unintelligible even to those accustomed to reading the swift and varied movements of her fingers.
Every shade of feeling finds expression through her mobile features. Her behaviour is easy and natural, and it is charming because of its frankness and evident sincerity. Her heart is too full of unselfishness and affection to allow a dream of fear or unkindness. She does not realize that one can be anything but kind-hearted and tender. She is not conscious of any reason why she should be awkward; consequently, her movements are free and graceful.
She is very fond of all the living things at home, and she will not have them unkindly treated. When she is riding in the carriage she will not allow the driver to use the whip, because, she says, “poor horses will cry.” One morning she was greatly distressed by finding that one of the dogs had a block fastened to her collar. We explained that it was done to keep Pearl from running away. Helen expressed a great deal of sympathy, and at every opportunity during the day she would find Pearl and carry the burden from place to place.
Her father wrote to her last summer that the birds and bees were eating all his grapes. At first she was very indignant, and said the little creatures were “very wrong”; but she seemed pleased when I explained to her that the birds and bees were hungry, and did not know that it was selfish to eat all the fruit. In a letter written soon afterward she says:
“I am very sorry that bumblebees and hornets and birds and large flies and worms are eating all of my father’s delicious grapes. They like juicy fruit to eat as well as people, and they are hungry. They are not very wrong to eat too many grapes because they do not know much.”
She continues to make rapid progress in the acquisition of language as her experiences increase. While these were few and elementary, her vocabulary was necessarily limited; but, as she learns more of the world about her, her judgment grows more accurate, her reasoning powers grow stronger, more active and subtle, and the language by which she expresses this intellectual activity gains in fluency and logic.
When traveling she drinks in thought and language. Sitting beside her in the car, I describe what I see from the window–hills and valleys and the rivers; cotton-fields and gardens in which strawberries, peaches, pears, melons, and vegetables are growing; herds of cows and horses feeding in broad meadows, and flocks of sheep on the hillside; the cities with their churches and schools, hotels and warehouses, and the occupations of the busy people. While I am communicating these things, Helen manifests intense interest; and, in default of words, she indicates by gestures and pantomime her desire to learn more of her surroundings and of the great forces which are operating everywhere. In this way, she learns countless new expressions without any apparent effort.
From the day when Helen first grasped the idea that all objects have names, and that these can be communicated by certain movements of the fingers, I have talked to her exactly as I should have done had she been able to hear, with only this exception, that I have addressed the words to her fingers instead of to her ears. Naturally, there was at first a strong tendency on her part to use only the important words in a sentence. She would say: “Helen milk.” I got the milk to show her that she had used the correct word; but I did not let her drink it until she had, with my assistance, made a complete sentence, as “Give Helen some milk to drink.” In these early lessons I encouraged her in the use of different forms of expression for conveying the same idea. If she was eating some candy, I said: “Will Helen please give teacher some candy?” or, “Teacher would like to eat some of Helen’s candy,” emphasizing the ‘s. She very soon perceived that the same idea could be expressed in a great many ways. In two or three months after I began to teach her she would say: “Helen wants to go to bed,” or, “Helen is sleepy, and Helen will go to bed.”
I am constantly asked the question, “How did you teach her the meaning of words expressive of intellectual and moral qualities?” I believe it was more through association and repetition than through any explanation of mine. This is especially true of her earlier lessons, when her knowledge of language was so slight as to make explanation impossible.
I always made it a practice to use the words descriptive of emotions, of intellectual or moral qualities and actions, in connection with the circumstance which required these words. Soon after I became her teacher Helen broke her new doll, of which she was very fond. She began to cry. I said to her, “Teacher is SORRY.” After a few repetitions she came to associate the word with the feeling.
The word HAPPY she learned in the same way; ALSO, RIGHT, WRONG, GOOD, BAD, and other adjectives. The word LOVE she learned as other children do–by its association with caresses.
One day I asked her a simple question in a combination of numbers, which I was sure she knew. She answered at random. I checked her, and she stood still, the expression of her face plainly showing that she was trying to think. I touched her forehead, and spelled “t-h-i-n-k.” The word, thus connected with the act, seemed to impress itself on her mind much as if I had placed her hand upon an object and then spelled its name. Since that time she has always used the word THINK.
At a later period I began to use such words as PERHAPS, SUPPOSE, EXPECT, FORGET, REMEMBER. If Helen asked, “Where is mother now?” I replied: “I do not know. PERHAPS she is with Leila.”
She is always anxious to learn the names of people we meet in the horse-cars or elsewhere, and to know where they are going, and what they will do. Conversations of this kind are frequent:
HELEN. What is little boy’s name?
TEACHER. I do not know, for he is a little stranger; but PERHAPS his name is Jack.
HELEN. Where is he going?
TEACHER. He MAY BE going to the Common to have fun with other boys.
HELEN. What will he play?
TEACHER. I SUPPOSE he will play ball.
HELEN. What are boys doing now?
TEACHER. PERHAPS they are expecting Jack, and are waiting for him.
After the words have become familiar to her, she uses them in composition.
September 26, .
“This morning teacher and I sat by the window and we saw a little boy walking on the sidewalk. It was raining very hard and he had a very large umbrella to keep off the rain-drops.
“I do not know how old he was but THINK he MAY HAVE BEEN six years old. PERHAPS his name was Joe. I do not know where he was going because he was a little strange boy. But PERHAPS his mother sent him to a store to buy something for dinner. He had a bag in one hand. I SUPPOSE he was going to take it to his mother.”
In teaching her the use of language, I have not confined myself to any particular theory or system. I have observed the spontaneous movements of my pupil’s mind, and have tried to follow the suggestions thus given to me.
Owing to the nervousness of Helen’s temperament, every precaution has been taken to avoid unduly exciting her already very active brain. The greater part of the year has been spent in travel and in visits to different places, and her lessons have been those suggested by the various scenes and experiences through which she has passed. She continues to manifest the same eagerness to learn as at first. It is never necessary to urge her to study. Indeed, I am often obliged to coax her to leave an example or a composition.
While not confining myself to any special system of instruction, I have tried to add to her general information and intelligence, to enlarge her acquaintance with things around her, and to bring her into easy and natural relations with people. I have encouraged her to keep a diary, from which the following selection has been made:
“March 22nd, 1888.
“Mr. Anagnos came to see me Thursday. I was glad to hug and kiss him. He takes care of sixty little blind girls and seventy little blind boys. I do love them. Little blind girls sent me a pretty work-basket. I found scissors and thread, and needle-book with many needles in it, and crochet hook and emery, and thimble, and box, and yard measure and buttons, and pin-cushion. I will write little blind girls a letter to thank them. I will make pretty clothes for Nancy and Adeline and Allie. I will go to Cincinnati in May and buy another child. Then I will have four children. New baby’s name is Harry. Mr. Wilson and Mr. Mitchell came to see us Sunday. Mr. Anagnos went to Louisville Monday to see little blind children. Mother went to Huntsville. I slept with father, and Mildred slept with teacher. I did learn about calm. It does mean quiet and happy. Uncle Morrie sent me pretty stories. I read about birds. The quail lays fifteen or twenty eggs and they are white. She makes her nest on the ground. The blue-bird makes her nest in a hollow tree and her eggs are blue. The robin’s eggs are green. I learned a song about spring. March, April, May are spring.
Now melts the snow.
The warm winds blow
The waters flow
And robin dear,
Is come to show
That Spring is here.
“James killed snipes for breakfast. Little chickens did get very cold and die. I am sorry. Teacher and I went to ride on Tennessee River, in a boat. I saw Mr. Wilson and James row with oars. Boat did glide swiftly and I put hand in water and felt it flowing.
“I caught fish with hook and line and pole. We climbed high hill and teacher fell and hurt her head. I ate very small fish for supper. I did read about cow and calf. The cow loves to eat grass as well as girl does bread and butter and milk. Little calf does run and leap in field. She likes to skip and play, for she is happy when the sun is bright and warm. Little boy did love his calf. And he did say, I will kiss you, little calf, and he put his arms around calf’s neck and kissed her. The calf licked good boy’s face with long rough tongue. Calf must not open mouth much to kiss. I am tired, and teacher does not want me to write more.”
In the autumn she went to a circus. While we were standing before his cage the lion roared, and Helen felt the vibration of the air so distinctly that she was able to reproduce the noise quite accurately.
I tried to describe to her the appearance of a camel; but, as we were not allowed to touch the animal, I feared that she did not get a correct idea of its shape. A few days afterward, however, hearing a commotion in the schoolroom, I went in and found Helen on all fours with a pillow so strapped upon her back as to leave a hollow in the middle, thus making a hump on either side. Between these humps she had placed her doll, which she was giving a ride around the room. I watched her for some time as she moved about, trying to take long strides in order to carry out the idea I had given her of a camel’s gait. When I asked her what she was doing, she replied, “I am a very funny camel.”
During the next two years neither Mr. Anagnos, who was in Europe for a year, nor Miss Sullivan wrote anything about Helen Keller for publication. In 1892 appeared the Perkins Institution report for 1891, containing a full account of Helen Keller, including many of her letters, exercises, and compositions. As some of the letters and the story of the “Frost King” are published here, there is no need of printing any more samples of Helen Keller’s writing during the third, fourth and fifth years of her education. It was the first two years that counted. From Miss Sullivan’s part of this report I give her most important comments and such biographical matter as does not appear elsewhere in the present volume.
These extracts Mr. Anagnos took from Miss Sullivan’s notes and memoranda.
One day, while her pony and her donkey were standing side by side, Helen went from one to the other, examining them closely. At last she paused with her hand upon Neddy’s head, and addressed him thus: “Yes, dear Neddy, it is true that you are not as beautiful as Black Beauty. Your body is not so handsomely formed, and there is no proud look in your face, and your neck does not arch, Besides, your long ears make you look a little funny. Of course, you cannot help it, and I love you just as well as if you were the most beautiful creature in the world.”
Helen has been greatly interested in the story of “Black Beauty.” To show how quickly she perceives and associates ideas, I will give an instance which all who have read the book will be able to appreciate. I was reading the following paragraph to her:
“The horse was an old, worn-out chestnut, with an ill-kept coat, and bones that showed plainly through it; the knees knuckled over, and the forelegs were very unsteady. I had been eating some hay, and the wind rolled a little lock of it that way, and the poor creature put out her long, thin neck and picked it up, and then turned round and looked about for more. There was a hopeless look in the dull eye that I could not help noticing, and then, as I was thinking where I had seen that horse before, she looked full at me and said, ‘Black Beauty, is that you?'”
At this point Helen pressed my hand to stop me. She was sobbing convulsively. “It was poor Ginger,” was all she could say at first. Later, when she was able to talk about it, she said: “Poor Ginger! The words made a distinct picture in my mind. I could see the way Ginger looked; all her beauty gone, her beautiful arched neck drooping, all the spirit gone out of her flashing eyes, all the playfulness gone out of her manner. Oh, how terrible it was! I never knew before that there could be such a change in anything. There were very few spots of sunshine in poor Ginger’s life, and the sadnesses were so many!” After a moment she added, mournfully, “I fear some people’s lives are just like Ginger’s.”
This morning Helen was reading for the first time Bryant’s poem, “Oh, mother of a mighty race!” I said to her, “Tell me, when you have read the poem through, who you think the mother is.” When she came to the line, “There’s freedom at thy gates, and rest,” she exclaimed: “It means America! The gate, I suppose, is New York City, and Freedom is the great statue of Liberty.” After she had read “The Battlefield,” by the same author, I asked her which verse she thought was the most beautiful. She replied, “I like this verse best:
‘Truth crushed to earth shall rise again; The eternal years of God are hers;
But Error, wounded, writhes with pain, And dies among his worshipers.'”
She is at once transported into the midst of the events of a story. She rejoices when justice wins, she is sad when virtue lies low, and her face glows with admiration and reverence when heroic deeds are described. She even enters into the spirit of battle; she says, “I think it is right for men to fight against wrongs and tyrants.”
Here begins Miss Sullivan’s connected account in the report of 1891:
During the past three years Helen has continued to make rapid progress in the acquisition of language. She has one advantage over ordinary children, that nothing from without distracts her attention from her studies.
But this advantage involves a corresponding disadvantage, the danger of unduly severe mental application. Her mind is so constituted that she is in a state of feverish unrest while conscious that there is something that she does not comprehend. I have never known her to be willing to leave a lesson when she felt that there was anything in it which she did not understand. If I suggest her leaving a problem in arithmetic until the next day, she answers, “I think it will make my mind stronger to do it now.”
A few evenings ago we were discussing the tariff. Helen wanted me to tell her about it. I said: “No. You cannot understand it yet.” She was quiet for a moment, and then asked, with spirit: “How do you know that I cannot understand? I have a good mind! You must remember, dear teacher, that Greek parents were very particular with their children, and they used to let them listen to wise words, and I think they understood some of them.” I have found it best not to tell her that she cannot understand, because she is almost certain to become excited.
Not long ago I tried to show her how to build a tower with her blocks. As the design was somewhat complicated, the slightest jar made the structure fall. After a time I became discouraged, and told her I was afraid she could not make it stand, but that I would build it for her; but she did not approve of this plan. She was determined to build the tower herself; and for nearly three hours she worked away, patiently gathering up the blocks whenever they fell, and beginning over again, until at last her perseverance was crowned with success. The tower stood complete in every part.
Until October, 1889, I had not deemed it best to confine Helen to any regular and systematic course of study. For the first two years of her intellectual life she was like a child in a strange country, where everything was new and perplexing; and, until she gained a knowledge of language, it was not possible to give her a definite course of instruction.
Moreover, Helen’s inquisitiveness was so great during these years that it would have interfered with her progress in the acquisition of language, if a consideration of the questions which were constantly occurring to her had been deferred until the completion of a lesson. In all probability she would have forgotten the question, and a good opportunity to explain something of real interest to her would have been lost. Therefore it has always seemed best to me to teach anything whenever my pupil needed to know it, whether it had any bearing on the projected lesson or not, her inquiries have often led us far away from the subject under immediate consideration.
Since October, 1889, her work has been more regular and has included arithmetic, geography, zoology, botany and reading.
She has made considerable progress in the study of arithmetic. She readily explains the processes of multiplication, addition, subtraction, and division, and seems to understand the operations. She has nearly finished Colburn’s mental arithmetic, her last work being in improper fractions. She has also done some good work in written arithmetic. Her mind works so rapidly, that it often happens, that when I give her an example she will give me the correct answer before I have time to write out the question. She pays little attention to the language used in stating a problem, and seldom stops to ask the meaning of unknown words or phrases until she is ready to explain her work. Once, when a question puzzled her very much, I suggested that we take a walk and then perhaps she would understand it. She shook her head decidedly, and said: “My enemies would think I was running away. I must stay and conquer them now,” and she did.
The intellectual improvement which Helen has made in the past two years is shown more clearly in her greater command of language and in her ability to recognize nicer shades of meaning in the use of words, than in any other branch of her education.
Not a day passes that she does not learn many new words, nor are these merely the names of tangible and sensible objects. For instance, she one day wished to know the meaning of the following words: PHENOMENON, COMPRISE, ENERGY, REPRODUCTION, EXTRAORDINARY, PERPETUAL and MYSTERY. Some of these words have successive steps of meaning, beginning with what is simple and leading on to what is abstract. It would have been a hopeless task to make Helen comprehend the more abstruse meanings of the word MYSTERY, but she understood readily that it signified something hidden or concealed, and when she makes greater progress she will grasp its more abstruse meaning as easily as she now does the simpler signification. In investigating any subject there must occur at the beginning words and phrases which cannot be adequately understood until the pupil has made considerable advancement; yet I have thought it best to go on giving my pupil simple definitions, thinking that, although these may be somewhat vague and provisional, they will come to one another’s assistance, and that what is obscure to-day will be plain to-morrow.
I regard my pupil as a free and active being, whose own spontaneous impulses must be my surest guide. I have always talked to Helen exactly as I would talk to a seeing and hearing child, and I have insisted that other people should do the same. Whenever any one asks me if she will understand this or that word I always reply: “Never mind whether she understands each separate word of a sentence or not. She will guess the meanings of the new words from their connection with others which are already intelligible to her.”
In selecting books for Helen to read, I have never chosen them with reference to her deafness and blindness. She always reads such books as seeing and hearing children of her age read and enjoy. Of course, in the beginning it was necessary that the things described should be familiar and interesting, and the English pure and simple. I remember distinctly when she first attempted to read a little story. She had learned the printed letters, and for some time had amused herself by making simple sentences, using slips on which the words were printed in raised letters; but these sentences had no special relation to one another. One morning we caught a mouse, and it occurred to me, with a live mouse and a live cat to stimulate her interest, that I might arrange some sentences in such a way as to form a little story, and thus give her a new conception of the use of language. So I put the following sentences in the frame, and gave it to Helen: “The cat is on the box. A mouse is in the box. The cat can see the mouse. The cat would like to eat the mouse. Do not let the cat get the mouse. The cat can have some milk, and the mouse can have some cake.” The word THE she did not know, and of course she wished it explained. At that stage of her advancement it would have been impossible to explain its use, and so I did not try, but moved her finger on to the next word, which she recognized with a bright smile. Then, as I put her hand upon puss sitting on the box, she made a little exclamation of surprise, and the rest of the sentence became perfectly clear to her. When she had read the words of the second sentence, I showed her that there really was a mouse in the box. She then moved her finger to the next line with an expression of eager interest. “The cat can see the mouse.” Here I made the cat look at the mouse, and let Helen feel the cat. The expression of the little girl’s countenance showed that she was perplexed. I called her attention to the following line, and, although she knew only the three words, CAT, EAT and MOUSE, she caught the idea. She pulled the cat away and put her on the floor, at the same time covering the box with the frame. When she read, “Do not let the cat get the mouse!” she recognized the negation in the sentence, and seemed to know that the cat must not get the mouse. GET and LET were new words. She was familiar with the words of the last sentence, and was delighted when allowed to act them out. By signs she made me understand that she wished another story, and I gave her a book containing very short stories, written in the most elementary style. She ran her fingers along the lines, finding the words she knew and guessing at the meaning of others, in a way that would convince the most conservative of educators that a little deaf child, if given the opportunity, will learn to read as easily and naturally as ordinary children.
I am convinced that Helen’s use of English is due largely to her familiarity with books. She often reads for two or three hours in succession, and then lays aside her book reluctantly. One day as we left the library I noticed that she appeared more serious than usual, and I asked the cause. “I am thinking how much wiser we always are when we leave here than we are when we come,” was her reply.
When asked why she loved books so much, she once replied: “Because they tell me so much that is interesting about things I cannot see, and they are never tired or troubled like people. They tell me over and over what I want to know.”
While reading from Dickens’s “Child’s History of England,” we came to the sentence, “Still the spirit of the Britons was not broken.” I asked what she thought that meant. She replied, “I think it means that the brave Britons were not discouraged because the Romans had won so many battles, and they wished all the more to drive them away.” It would not have been possible for her to define the words in this sentence; and yet she had caught the author’s meaning, and was able to give it in her own words. The next lines are still more idiomatic, “When Suetonius left the country, they fell upon his troops and retook the island of Anglesea.” Here is her interpretation of the sentence: “It means that when the Roman general had gone away, the Britons began to fight again; and because the Roman soldiers had no general to tell them what to do, they were overcome by the Britons and lost the island they had captured.”
She prefers intellectual to manual occupations, and is not so fond of fancy work as many of the blind children are; yet she is eager to join them in whatever they are doing. She has learned to use the Caligraph typewriter, and writes very correctly, but not rapidly as yet, having had less than a month’s practice.
More than two years ago a cousin taught her the telegraph alphabet by making the dots and dashes on the back of her hand with his finger. Whenever she meets any one who is familiar with this system, she is delighted to use it in conversation. I have found it a convenient medium of communicating with Helen when she is at some distance from me, for it enables me to talk with her by tapping upon the floor with my foot. She feels the vibrations and understands what is said to her.
It was hoped that one so peculiarly endowed by nature as Helen, would, if left entirely to her own resources, throw some light upon such psychological questions as were not exhaustively investigated by Dr. Howe; but their hopes were not to be realized. In the case of Helen, as in that of Laura Bridgman, disappointment was inevitable. It is impossible to isolate a child in the midst of society, so that he shall not be influenced by the beliefs of those with whom he associates. In Helen’s case such an end could not have been attained without depriving her of that intercourse with others, which is essential to her nature.
It must have been evident to those who watched the rapid unfolding of Helen’s faculties that it would not be possible to keep her inquisitive spirit for any length of time from reaching out toward the unfathomable mysteries of life. But great care has been taken not to lead her thoughts prematurely to the consideration of subjects which perplex and confuse all minds. Children ask profound questions, but they often receive shallow answers, or, to speak more correctly, they are quieted by such answers.
“Were did I come from?” and “Where shall I go when I die?” were questions Helen asked when she was eight years old. But the explanations which she was able to understand at that time did not satisfy, although they forced her to remain silent, until her mind should begin to put forth its higher powers, and generalize from innumerable impressions and ideas which streamed in upon it from books and from her daily experiences. Her mind sought for the cause of things.
As her observation of phenomena became more extensive and her vocabulary richer and more subtle, enabling her to express her own conceptions and ideas clearly, and also to comprehend the thoughts and experiences of others, she became acquainted with the limit of human creative power, and perceived that some power, not human, must have created the earth, the sun, and the thousand natural objects with which she was perfectly familiar.
Finally she one day demanded a name for the power, the existence of which she had already conceived in her own mind.
Through Charles Kingsley’s “Greek Heroes” she had become familiar with the beautiful stories of the Greek gods and goddesses, and she must have met with the words GOD, HEAVEN, SOUL, and a great many similar expressions in books.
She never asked the meaning of such words, nor made any comment when they occurred; and until February, 1889, no one had ever spoken to her of God. At that time, a dear relative who was also an earnest Christian, tried to tell her about God but, as this lady did not use words suited to the comprehension of the child, they made little impression upon Helen’s mind. When I subsequently talked with her she said: “I have something very funny to tell you. A. says God made me and every one out of sand; but it must be a joke. I am made of flesh and blood and bone, am I not?” Here she examined her arm with evident satisfaction, laughing heartily to herself. After a moment she went on: “A. says God is everywhere, and that He is all love; but I do not think a person can be made out of love. Love is only something in our hearts. Then A. said another very comical thing. She says He (meaning God) is my dear father. It made me laugh quite hard, for I know my father is Arthur Keller.”
I explained to her that she was not yet able to understand what had been told her, and so easily led her to see that it would be better not to talk about such things until she was wiser.
She had met with the expression Mother Nature in the course of her reading, and for a long time she was in the habit of ascribing to Mother Nature whatever she felt to be beyond the power of man to accomplish. She would say, when speaking of the growth of a plant, “Mother Nature sends the sunshine and the rain to make the trees and the grass and the flowers grow.” The following extract from my notes will show what were her ideas at this time:
Helen seemed a little serious after supper, and Mrs. H. asked her of what she was thinking. “I am thinking how very busy dear Mother Nature is in the springtime,” she replied. When asked why, she answered: “Because she has so many children to take care of. She is the mother of everything; the flowers and trees and winds.”
“How does Mother Nature take care of the flowers?” I asked.
“She sends the sunshine and rain to make them grow,” Helen replied; and after a moment she added, “I think the sunshine is Nature’s warm smile, and the raindrops are her tears.”
Later she said: “I do not know if Mother Nature made me. I think my mother got me from heaven, but I do not know where that place is. I know that daisies and pansies come from seeds which have been put in the ground; but children do not grow out of the ground, I am sure. I have never seen a plant-child! But I cannot imagine who made Mother Nature, can you? I love the beautiful spring, because the budding trees and the blossoming flowers and the tender green leaves fill my heart with joy. I must go now to see my garden. The daisies and the pansies will think I have forgotten them.”
After May, 1890, it was evident to me that she had reached a point where it was impossible to keep from her the religious beliefs held by those with whom she was in daily contact. She almost overwhelmed me with inquiries which were the natural outgrowth of her quickened intelligence.
Early in May she wrote on her tablet the following list of questions:
“I wish to write about things I do not understand. Who made the earth and the seas, and everything? What makes the sun hot? Where was I before I came to mother? I know that plants grow from seeds which are in the ground, but I am sure people do not grow that way. I never saw a child-plant. Little birds and chickens come out of eggs. I have seen them. What was the egg before it was an egg? Why does not the earth fall, it is so very large and heavy? Tell me something that Father Nature does. May I read the book called the Bible? Please tell your little pupil many things when you have much time.”
Can any one doubt after reading these questions that the child who was capable of asking them was also capable of understanding at least their elementary answers? She could not, of course, have grasped such abstractions as a complete answer to her questions would involve; but one’s whole life is nothing more than a continual advance in the comprehension of the meaning and scope of such ideas.
Throughout Helen’s education I have invariably assumed that she can understand whatever it is desirable for her to know. Unless there had been in Helen’s mind some such intellectual process as the questions indicate, any explanation of them would have been unintelligible to her. Without that degree of mental development and activity which perceives the necessity of superhuman creative power, no explanation of natural phenomena is possible.
After she had succeeded in formulating the ideas which had been slowly growing in her mind, they seemed suddenly to absorb all her thoughts, and she became impatient to have everything explained. As we were passing a large globe a short time after she had written the questions, she stopped before it and asked, “Who made the REAL world?” I replied, “No one knows how the earth, the sun, and all the worlds which we call stars came to be; but I will tell you how wise men have tried to account for their origin, and to interpret the great and mysterious forces of nature.”
She knew that the Greeks had many gods to whom they ascribed various powers, because they believed that the sun, the lightning, and a hundred other natural forces, were independent and superhuman powers. But after a great deal of thought and study, I told her, men came to believe that all forces were manifestations of one power, and to that power they gave the name GOD.
She was very still for a few minutes, evidently thinking earnestly. She then asked, “Who made God?” I was compelled to evade her question, for I could not explain to her the mystery of a self-existent being. Indeed, many of her eager questions would have puzzled a far wiser person than I am. Here are some of them: “What did God make the new worlds out of?” “Where did He get the soil, and the water, and the seeds, and the first animals?” “Where is God?” “Did you ever see God?” I told her that God was everywhere, and that she must not think of Him as a person, but as the life, the mind, the soul of everything. She interrupted me: “Everything does not have life. The rocks have not life, and they cannot think.” It is often necessary to remind her that there are infinitely many things that the wisest people in the world cannot explain.
No creed or dogma has been taught to Helen, nor has any effort been made to force religious beliefs upon her attention. Being fully aware of my own incompetence to give her any adequate explanations of the mysteries which underlie the names of God, soul, and immortality, I have always felt obliged, by a sense of duty to my pupil, to say as little as possible about spiritual matters. The Rt. Rev. Phillips Brooks has explained to her in a beautiful way the fatherhood of God.
She has not as yet been allowed to read the Bible, because I do not see how she can do so at present without getting a very erroneous conception of the attributes of God. I have already told her in simple language of the beautiful and helpful life of Jesus, and of His cruel death. The narrative affected her greatly when first she listened to it.
When she referred to our conversation again, it was to ask, “Why did not Jesus go away, so that His enemies could not find Him?” She thought the miracles of Jesus very strange. When told that Jesus walked on the sea to meet His disciples, she said, decidedly, “It does not mean WALKED, it means SWAM.” When told of the instance in which Jesus raised the dead, she was much perplexed, saying, “I did not know life could come back into the dead body!”
One day she said, sadly: “I am blind and deaf. That is why I cannot see God.” I taught her the word INVISIBLE, and told her we could not see God with our eyes, because He was a spirit; but that when our hearts were full of goodness and gentleness, then we saw Him because then we were more like Him.
At another time she asked, “What is a soul?” “No one knows what the soul is like,” I replied; “but we know that it is not the body, and it is that part of us which thinks and loves and hopes, and which Christian people believe will live on after the body is dead.” I then asked her, “Can you think of your soul as separate from your body?” “Oh, yes!” she replied; “because last hour I was thinking very hard of Mr. Anagnos, and then my mind,”–then changing the word–“my soul was in Athens, but my body was here in the study.” At this moment another thought seemed to flash through her mind, and she added, “But Mr. Anagnos did not speak to my soul.” I explained to her that the soul, too, is invisible, or in other words, that it is without apparent form. “But if I write what my soul thinks,” she said, “then it will be visible, and the words will be its body.”
A long time ago Helen said to me, “I would like to live sixteen hundred years.” When asked if she would not like to live ALWAYS in a beautiful country called heaven, her first question was, “Where is heaven?” I was obliged to confess that I did not know, but suggested that it might be on one of the stars. A moment after she said, “Will you please go first and tell me all about it?” and then she added, “Tuscumbia is a very beautiful little town.” It was more than a year before she alluded to the subject again, and when she did return to it, her questions were numerous and persistent. She asked: “Where is heaven, and what is it like? Why cannot we know as much about heaven as we do about foreign countries?” I told her in very simple language that there may be many places called heaven, but that essentially it was a condition–the fulfilment of the heart’s desire, the satisfaction of its wants; and that heaven existed wherever RIGHT was acknowledged, believed in, and loved.
She shrinks from the thought of death with evident dismay. Recently, on being shown a deer which had been killed by her brother, she was greatly distressed, and asked sorrowfully, “Why must everything die, even the fleet-footed deer?” At another time she asked, “Do you not think we would be very much happier always, if we did not have to die?” I said, “No; because, if there were no death, our world would soon be so crowded with living creatures that it would be impossible for any of them to live comfortably.” “But,” said Helen, quickly, “I think God could make some more worlds as well as He made this one.”
When friends have told her of the great happiness which awaits her in another life, she instantly asked: “How do you know, if you have not been dead?”
The literal sense in which she sometimes takes common words and idioms shows how necessary it is that we should make sure that she receives their correct meaning. When told recently that Hungarians were born musicians, she asked in surprise, “Do they sing when they are born?” When her friend added that some of the pupils he had seen in Budapest had more than one hundred tunes in their heads, she said, laughing, “I think their heads must be very noisy.” She sees the ridiculous quickly, and, instead of being seriously troubled by metaphorical language, she is often amused at her own too literal conception of its meaning.
Having been told that the soul was without form, she was much perplexed at David’s words, “He leadeth my soul.” “Has it feet? Can it walk? Is it blind?” she asked; for in her mind the idea of being led was associated with blindness.
Of all the subjects which perplex and trouble Helen, none distresses her so much as the knowledge of the existence of evil, and of the suffering which results from it. For a long time it was possible to keep this knowledge from her; and it will always be comparatively easy to prevent her from coming in personal contact with vice and wickedness. The fact that sin exists, and that great misery results from it, dawned gradually upon her mind as she understood more and more clearly the lives and experiences of those around her. The necessity of laws and penalties had to be explained to her. She found it very hard to reconcile the presence of evil in the world with the idea of God which had been presented to her mind.
One day she asked, “Does God take care of us all the time?” She was answered in the affirmative. “Then why did He let little sister fall this morning, and hurt her head so badly?” Another time she was asking about the power and goodness of God. She had been told of a terrible storm at sea, in which several lives were lost, and she asked, “Why did not God save the people if He can do all things?”
Surrounded by loving friends and the gentlest influences, as Helen had always been, she has, from the earliest stage of her intellectual enlightenment, willingly done right. She knows with unerring instinct what is right, and does it joyously. She does not think of one wrong act as harmless, of another as of no consequence, and of another as not intended. To her pure soul all evil is equally unlovely.
These passages from the paper Miss Sullivan prepared for the meeting at Chautauqua, in July, 1894, of the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the Deaf, contain her latest written account of her methods.
You must not imagine that as soon as Helen grasped the idea that everything had a name she at once became mistress of the treasury of the English language, or that “her mental faculties emerged, full armed, from their then living tomb, as Pallas Athene from the head of Zeus,” as one of her enthusiastic admirers would have us believe. At first, the words, phrases and sentences which she used in expressing her thoughts were all reproductions of what we had used in conversation with her, and which her memory had unconsciously retained. And indeed, this is true of the language of all children. Their language is the memory of the language they hear spoken in their homes. Countless repetition of the conversation of daily life has impressed certain words and phrases upon their memories, and when they come to talk themselves, memory supplies the words they lisp. Likewise, the language of educated people is the memory of the language of books.
Language grows out of life, out of its needs and experiences. At first my little pupil’s mind was all but vacant. She had been living in a world she could not realize. LANGUAGE and KNOWLEDGE are indissolubly connected; they are interdependent. Good work in language presupposes and depends on a real knowledge of things. As soon as Helen grasped the idea that everything had a name, and that by means of the manual alphabet these names could be transmitted from one to another, I proceeded to awaken her further interest in the OBJECTS whose names she learned to spell with such evident joy. I NEVER TAUGHT LANGUAGE FOR THE PURPOSE OF TEACHING IT; but invariably used language as a medium for the communication of THOUGHT; thus the learning of language was COINCIDENT with the acquisition of knowledge. In order to use language intelligently, one must have something to talk ABOUT, and having something to talk about is the result of having had experiences; no amount of language training will enable our little children to use language with ease and fluency unless they have something clearly in their minds which they wish to communicate, or unless we succeed in awakening in them a desire to know what is in the minds of others.
At first I did not attempt to confine my pupil to any system. I always tried to find out what interested her most, and made that the starting-point for the new lesson, whether it had any bearing on the lesson I had planned to teach or not. During the first two years of her intellectual life, I required Helen to write very little. In order to write one must have something to write about, and having something to write about requires some mental preparation. The memory must be stored with ideas and the mind must be enriched with knowledge before writing becomes a natural and pleasurable effort. Too often, I think, children are required to write before they have anything to say. Teach them to think and read and talk without self-repression, and they will write because they cannot help it.
Helen acquired language by practice and habit rather than by study of rules and definitions. Grammar with its puzzling array of classifications, nomenclatures, and paradigms, was wholly discarded in her education. She learned language by being brought in contact with the LIVING language itself; she was made to deal with it in everyday conversation, and in her books, and to turn it over in a variety of ways until she was able to use it correctly. No doubt I talked much more with my fingers, and more constantly than I should have done with my mouth; for had she possessed the use of sight and hearing, she would have been less dependent on me for entertainment and instruction.
I believe every child has hidden away somewhere in his being noble capacities which may be quickened and developed if we go about it in the right way; but we shall never properly develop the higher natures of our little ones while we continue to fill their minds with the so-called rudiments. Mathematics will never make them loving, nor will the accurate knowledge of the size and shape of the world help them to appreciate its beauties. Let us lead them during the first years to find their greatest pleasure in Nature. Let them run in the fields, learn about animals, and observe real things. Children will educate themselves under right conditions. They require guidance and sympathy far more than instruction.
I think much of the fluency with which Helen uses language is due to the fact that nearly every impression which she receives comes through the medium of language. But after due allowance has been made for Helen’s natural aptitude for acquiring language, and for the advantage resulting from her peculiar environment, I think that we shall still find that the constant companionship of good books has been of supreme importance in her education. It may be true, as some maintain, that language cannot express to us much beyond what we have lived and experienced; but I have always observed that children manifest the greatest delight in the lofty, poetic language which we are too ready to think beyond their comprehension. “This is all you will understand,” said a teacher to a class of little children, closing the book which she had been reading to them. “Oh, please read us the rest, even if we won’t understand it,” they pleaded, delighted with the rhythm, and the beauty which they felt, even though they could not have explained it. It is not necessary that a child should understand every word in a book before he can read with pleasure and profit. Indeed, only such explanations should be given as are really essential. Helen drank in language which she at first could not understand, and it remained in her mind until needed, when it fitted itself naturally and easily into her conversation and compositions. Indeed, it is maintained by some that she reads too much, that a great deal of originative force is dissipated in the enjoyment of books; that when she might see and say things for herself, she sees them only through the eyes of others, and says them in their language, but I am convinced that original composition without the preparation of much reading is an impossibility. Helen has had the best and purest models in language constantly presented to her, and her conversation and her writing are unconscious reproductions of what she has read. Reading, I think, should be kept independent of the regular school exercises. Children should be encouraged to read for the pure delight of it. The attitude of the child toward his books should be that of unconscious receptivity. The great works of the imagination ought to become a part of his life, as they were once of the very substance of the men who wrote them. It is true, the more sensitive and imaginative the mind is that receives the thought-pictures and images of literature, the more nicely the finest lines are reproduced. Helen has the vitality of feeling, the freshness and eagerness of interest, and the spiritual insight of the artistic temperament, and naturally she has a more active and intense joy in life, simply as life, and in nature, books, and people than less gifted mortals. Her mind is so filled with the beautiful thoughts and ideals of the great poets that nothing seems commonplace to her; for her imagination colours all life with its own rich hues.
There has been much discussion of such of Miss Sullivan’s statements and explanations as have been published before. Too much has been written by people who do not know the problems of the deaf at first hand, and I do not care to add much to it. Miss Keller’s education, however, is so fundamentally a question of language teaching that it rather includes the problems of the deaf than limits itself to the deaf alone. Teachers can draw their own conclusions. For the majority of readers, who will not approach Miss Keller’s life from the educator’s point of view, I will summarize a few principal things in Miss Sullivan’s methods.
Miss Sullivan has begun where Dr. Howe left off. He invented the instrument, the physical means of working, but the teaching of language is quite another thing from the mechanical means by which language may be taught. By experiment, by studying other children, Miss Sullivan came upon the practical way of teaching language by the natural method. It was for this “natural method” that Dr. Howe was groping, but he never got to this idea, that a deaf child should not be taught each word separately by definition, but should be given language by endless repetition of language which it does not understand. And this is Miss Sullivan’s great discovery. All day long in their play-time and work-time Miss Sullivan kept spelling into her pupil’s hand, and by that Helen Keller absorbed words, just as the child in the cradle absorbs words by hearing thousands of them before he uses one and by associating the words with the occasion of their utterance. Thus he learns that words name things and actions and feelings. Now, that is the first principle in Miss Sullivan’s method, one that had practical results, and one which, so far as I can discover, had never been put in practice in the education of a deaf child, not to say a deaf-blind child, until Miss Sullivan tried it with Helen Keller. And the principle had never been formulated clearly until Miss Sullivan wrote her letters.
The second principle in her method (the numerical order is, of course, arbitrary) is never to talk to the child about things distasteful or wearisome to him. In the first deaf school Miss Sullivan ever visited, the teacher was busy at the blackboard telling the children by written words something they did not want to know, while they were crowding round their visitor with wide-awake curiosity, showing there were a thousand things they did want to know. Why not, says Miss Sullivan, make a language lesson out of what they were interested in?
Akin to this idea of talking to the child about what interests him, is the principle never to silence a child who asks questions, but to answer the questions as truly as possible; for, says Miss Sullivan, the question is the door to the child’s mind. Miss Sullivan never needlessly belittled her ideas or expressions to suit the supposed state of the child’s intelligence. She urged every one to speak to Helen naturally, to give her full sentences and intelligent ideas, never minding whether Helen understood or not. Thus Miss Sullivan knew what so many people do not understand, that after the first rudimentary definitions of HAT, CUP, GO, SIT, the unit of language, as the child learns it, is the sentence, which is also the unit of language in our adult experience. We do not take in a sentence word by word, but as a whole. It is the proposition, something predicated about something, that conveys an idea. True, single words do suggest and express ideas; the child may say simply “mamma” when he means “Where is mamma?” but he learns the expression of the ideas that relate to mamma–he learns language–by hearing complete sentences. And though Miss Sullivan did not force grammatical completeness upon the first finger-lispings of her pupil, yet when she herself repeated Helen’s sentence, “mamma milk,” she filled out the construction, completed the child’s ellipsis and said, “Mamma will bring Helen some milk.”
Thus Miss Sullivan was working out a natural method, which is so simple, so lacking in artificial system, that her method seems rather to be a destruction of method. It is doubtful if we should have heard of Helen Keller if Miss Sullivan had not been where there were other children. By watching them, she learned to treat her pupil as nearly as possible like an ordinary child.
The manual alphabet was not the only means of presenting words to Helen Keller’s fingers. Books supplemented, perhaps equaled in importance the manual alphabet, as a means of teaching language. Helen sat poring over them before she could read, not at first for the story, but to find words she knew; and the definition of new words which is implied in their context, in their position with reference to words known, added to Helen’s vocabulary. Books are the storehouse of language, and any child, whether deaf or not, if he has his attention attracted in any way to printed pages, must learn. He learns not by reading what he understands, but by reading and remembering words he does not understand. And though perhaps few children will have as much precocious interest in books as did Helen Keller, yet the natural curiosity of every healthy child may be turned to printed pages, especially if the teacher is clever and plays a word game as Miss Sullivan did. Helen Keller is supposed to have a special aptitude for languages. It is true rather that she has a special aptitude for thinking, and her leaning toward language is due to the fact that language to her meant life. It was not a special subject, like geography or arithmetic, but her way to outward things.
When at the age of fourteen she had had but a few lessons in German, she read over the words of “Wilhelm Tell” and managed to get the story. Of grammar she knew nothing and she cared nothing for it. She got the language from the language itself, and this is, next to hearing the language spoken, the way for any one to get a foreign tongue, more vital and, in the end, easier than our schoolroom method of beginning with the grammar. In the same way she played with Latin, learning not only from the lessons her first Latin teacher gave her, but from going over and over the words of a text, a game she played by herself.
Mr. John D. Wright, one of her teachers at the Wright-Humason School, says in a letter to me:
“Often I found her, when she had a little leisure, sitting in her favourite corner, in a chair whose arms supported the big volume prepared for the blind, and passing her finger slowly over the lines of Moliere’s ‘Le Medecin Malgre Lui,’ chuckling to herself at the comical situations and humorous lines. At that time her actual working vocabulary in French was very small, but by using her judgment, as we laughingly called the mental process, she could guess at the meanings of the words and put the sense together much as a child puzzles out a sliced object. The result was that in a few weeks she and I spent a most hilarious hour one evening while she poured out to me the whole story, dwelling with great gusto on its humour and sparkling wit. It was not a lesson, but only one of her recreations.”
So Helen Keller’s aptitude for language is her whole mental