Inspirational Stories IV : Hellen Keller, A Great Heroine
Tears glided down my cheeks as I reviewed Hellen Keller‘s story. Those were tears of admiration. Much as I know I can continue to write on, I believe her indomitable spirit is best experienced by “touch”. Let her story touch you, just like it has touched me.
A Genius in A Lockup
When Hellen Keller was born on June 27, 1880, she was like any other normal baby. Her parents, landowners in post Civil War Alabama were very proud of her. In their eyes, she was after all their intelligent child who could speak “How do you do?” at 6 months old. However, that started to change after she contracted scarlet fever at 19 months in February 1882. When she was rescued from the brink of death, little Hellen could no longer respond to the dinner bell rings or flashes of her mother’s hand in front of her eyes.
It thus became apparent that her illness has left her to be blind and deaf. And as she became further withdrawn into her own silent world, she began to lose her speech as well.
Losing her ability to communicate with her parents reduced Hellen Keller to a state of frustration and anger. She became a difficult child, throwing dishes and lamps on the floor, yelling and throwing tantrums. That behaviour gradually worsened as her parents became too soft hearted and refused to discipline her. Relatives thought she should be sent to a mental institution. Yet this girl turned out to be one of the world’s greatest inspirational stories!
Despite her relatives’ claims, Hellen Keller displayed abilities that seemed to suggest that she was sound. By the time she was 5, she could use more than 60 customized hand gestures to communicate meanings of “Mother”, “Father” etc. Believing that her child could be educated, her mother brought Hellen to Alexander Graham Bell on the advice from a specialist doctor. Alexander was working with the deaf at that time. It was through his contacts that a private tutor was eventually engaged to coach Helen. She was none other than Anne Sullivan.
Just Like Any Other Kid
At that time, Anne Sullivan had just graduated from the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston and the offer to be Hellen’s private tutor was like rain in the drought as she had been trying to find work for a long time. Suffering from poor eyesight herself, Anne saw in Hellen what others couldn’t. To her, she was like just any other girl.
Anne tried to control Hellen’s bad behaviour and correct her table manners. Instead of allowing her to grab food with her bare hands off other people’s plates, she would train her to eat with a fork sitting down. She would also make her brush her own hair. Those attempts often led to more protests and tantrums from the young girl, causing Anne to lose her 2 front teeth in the first week.
At the same time, Anne was teaching Helen finger spelling by writing individual letters onto the girl’s hand. Although Helen could repeat these hand movements, she didn’t really understood what those meant. One fine day in April 5, 1887, all that changed.
Anne led Hellen down the path to the well house, held her hand under a running water pump and wrote the words w-a-t-e-r on her palms. As the cool stream gushed against her hands, Hellen felt a sudden awareness as the mystery of language unveiled in her new founded consciousness. Anne was immediately asked to spell the name of the pump and many other objects Hellen touched in the path, including her own name. By the end of the day, Helen had already learned 30 new words. 3 months later, she picked up 300.
New Founded Fame
As Anne and Hellen’s bond grew, friends, family and even neighbours were greatly astonished at the change in that young lady, calling it a “miracle”. It was not long before news of her accomplishments spread across the country that she got to visit many famous personalities such as Alexander Graham Bell (again) and president Grover Cleveland. By the time she was 12, Hellen was world famous, with renowned people such as England’s Queen Victoria, Mark Twain, Queen Olga of Greece etc openly declaring their admiration for the young lady’s spirit.
By 1890, she was living at Perkins Institute, being taught by Anne and spending several winters. During her stay there, she learned ferociously and picked up knowledge not only pertaining to her own language but also in Greek, French and Latin. She also aspired to attend college and intentionally did her high school education in Cambridge so that she could be physically near her dream school, Radcliffe, the sister college to Harvard.
Going to College
As the school in Cambridge was not catered for the blind nor the deaf, Hellen Keller worked doubly hard and diligently prepared for her entrance exams. However, it was not without challenge. Worried that the girl might not be able to handle the stress, the headmaster forcibly separated Helen from Anne when the latter refuted his advice to refrain from pushing Helen too hard and lowering her expectations. He also wrote to Hellen’s mother, accusing Anne of trying to damage her daughter’s health. It was only when Mrs Keller got to listen to Hellen’s side of the story before the 2 were reunited. Hellen also withdrew from Cambridge and prepared her exams independently.
Hellen encountered another setback in her bid to get into Radcliffe. Despite passing the entrance exams with flying colours, on the grounds that the workload would prove to be too heavy for a deaf and blind student, her admission request to the class of 1899 was rejected. Though she was devastated, Helen was determined to get into Radcliffe, even at the extent of rejecting Cornell University and the University of Chicago’s acceptance offers and full scholarships.
She did very well in the next year’s entrance exams and was finally admitted to the class of 1900. During her years in college, she wrote her memoir, “The Story of My Life” and eventually went on to graduate on June 28, 1904 with a honours Bachelor of Arts degree. Although the book sold poorly at first, it later turned out to be a classic.
A True Blue Risk Taker
Despite her disabilities, Hellen dared herself to take up a lot of adventures such as horse riding, cycling, swimming and even camping that any other able bodied person would take up. She expressed controversial political thoughts in her essays, went up to the vaudeville stage to demonstrate her first understanding of the word ‘water’ and answer questions fielded by the audience on her struggles, with Anne acting as her interpreter.
In 1918, after she moved to Forest Hills in New York, Helen started on her extensive fund raising campaigns for the American Foundation for the Blind using her new home as a base. In the process she traveled around the world, visiting many famous personalities such as the Emperor of Japan, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill etc, effectively helping to raise public awareness on the issues faced by the disabled.
Anne died in 1936. To commemorate the death of her friend, Hellen started to work on Anne’s biography, only to lose it to a fire in 1946 when it was almost completed. She rewrote it again and in 1955, published “Teacher : Anne Sullivan Macy”.
On June 1, 1968, after Hellen died peacefully in her sleep, she was buried next to Anne at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
What Did I Learn From This Story?
That one can read all the literature, visit all the countries and view all the scenery he wants with his eyes, but without vision, his life amounts to nothing. One can listen to all the speeches of powerful people or harmonious music for all he desires, but without hearing his own creative thoughts, he will achieve nothing. Here’s my other learnings :
(1) The Importance of A Good Mentor
Have you ever been placed in a position where you can’t imagine what it’ll be like if a particular person didn’t appear into your life? Well, I did. That’s why I can fully comprehend Hellen’s gratitude towards Anne. Anne Sullivan was an excellent example of a good mentor. Not only did she take great “pains” – well she lost 2 front teeth, isn’t it? – to teach Helen social etiquette, she went the extra mile to encourage creative thinking by relating the words w-a-t-e-r with the physical touch of gushing water.
She wasn’t just doing her job and taking a salary. She was there to change a life. Hellen Keller’s.
Yes, she might have viewed “harsh” in the process, so much so that the headmaster in Cambridge complained, but through my own experiences, a good mentor’s words may be harsh at times but those are said with your welfare at heart. Most of the time, it’s not the words that are hurtful, it’s your reactions to his words that make it so. Think through what your mentor said, and constantly question them. Is it true? Or has he missed a point?
A good mentor is able to see your attributes and help you to explore them. If you’re not willing to trust him just like he believe in you, that lopsided relationship is eventually going to take its toll and crumble.
(2) “Life is either a Daring Adventure or Nothing” ~ Hellen Keller
That’s one of the famous Helen Keller quotes. It’s easy to quote them. But practicing it?
One of the reasons why risk taking is often deemed to be inappropriate is because people often associate it with uncertainty. To them, uncertainty is bad and is likely to bring failure. But the truth is, if you start assuming a bit of risk, the downside is only losing what you had put in while the upside can be limitless.
My financial adviser is one good example. He used to be an audit manager in one of the large international audit firms and gave it all up to pursue a career in financial advisory. Now, he enjoys great financial abundance from his new founded career and most importantly he got what he had always wanted when he was in audit. Freedom to spend time with his family whenever and wherever he likes. He lost a JOB, but gain much more in return.
And as you become increasingly committed to the entire risk taking process, you’ll find yourself encouraged to draw upon qualities you didn’t think you had. But at the same time, it’s interesting to know that as you start engaging in more risk-taking activities, others will try to avoid it “at all costs”. This avoidance will eventually reduce them to a state of meaningless existence, which is what Helen Keller was meant by “Nothing” in her quote.
Let me cite you a very good example. A similar opportunity to relocate on business was given to 2 single friends of mine. 1 took up the challenge and will be flying to a new country in a month’s time. She will be going through new experiences and I’m sure when she’s back, her career value will augment because of her international exposure. The other friend is still sticking around in town for fear of going into a strange land. She gave up what others deem to be an opportunity of a lifetime to stay in the same monotony that she has been complaining of. She wants new challenges but doesn’t want to embrace uncertainty. Ironic?
Although risk taking is very important for personal growth, there’s a thin line separating it and irresponsibility. I hope Hellen Keller’s and my little story about Risk Taker Joe & Irresponsible Dave will help shed some light on this .