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Helen Keller Kids Museum Online

Keller Johnson-Thompson

Ask Keller - May 2006

May 2006

Are you curious about some aspect of Helen Keller's life, and haven't been able to find the answer to your question? Ask Keller Johnson-Thompson, Helen's great-grandniece. This monthly column features real questions from readers like you.

When did Helen Keller make her first public speech, and how did she feel?

Helen Keller made her first public speaking appearance in February, 1913 in Montclair, New Jersey. She was so scared. The plan was that Anne Sullivan, her teacher and a very good speaker, would begin the presentation with a short talk about how she taught Helen as a child. Afterwards, Helen would come to the stage.

As Helen entered, she was terrified. She wrote later,

"Terror invaded my flesh, my mind froze, my heart stopped beating. I kept repeating, 'What shall I do? What shall I do to calm this tumult within me?'"

Helen placed her fingers on Annie's mouth to show the audience how she could lip-read. Annie gently squeezed her arm to indicate to Helen to begin her speech. Annie repeated word for word what Helen said to make sure the audience understood. Helen froze; she could not utter a sound. When she was finally able to force a syllable it was just a whisper. Helen was too terrified to remember anything that her speech teacher had taught her. When she finally finished, she rushed offstage and burst into tears. She felt like a complete failure. Little did Helen realize that this would be the beginning of a fifty-year lecture career.

Each time Helen gave a speech, she tried to figure out what kinds of things her audiences wanted to hear. She adapted her talk to fit their interests and their needs. She was especially interested in reaching people who were poor, young, blind, deaf and those with other handicaps. Her goal was to always give special encouragement to them.

When was the first time Helen Keller was able to communicate with children her own age?

Helen Keller never forgot the delight she felt on May 26, 1888, the day she communicated directly and freely with children her own age for the first time in her life.

She was eight years old at the time, and had just made the long, hot journey from Tuscumbia, Alabama, her hometown, to Boston to attend the Perkins School for the Blind with her teacher Anne Sullivan. She was so eager and excited, she had been writing to the blind students at Perkins for the past year, and now she was going to finally meet them in person.

As soon as she got down from the carriage, the blind boys and girls hurried down the front steps to meet her. They surrounded her and quickly begin to spell their names in her outstretched hand. Helen swiftly spelled back into their hands by using the manual alphabet—a series of twenty-six different finger positions representing different letters of the alphabet.

For once she was not an outsider. She had no need for an adult to translate for her. She could speak directly without worrying that someone would correct her. She wrote, "What joy to talk with other children in my own language." (The Story of My Life.)

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