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Keller Johnson-Thompson

Ask Keller - June 2007

June 2007

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.

I am doing a report on Helen Keller and I wanted to know if you could explain in more detail the arrival of Helen's teacher, Anne Sullivan, to Tuscumbia, Alabama.

The trip from Boston, Massachusetts, to Tuscumbia, Alabama, was the farthest that nineteen-year-old Annie Sullivan had ever traveled. Because of a recent eye operation, treatment for an eye disease known as trachoma, Annie had to wear dark glasses so that the sun would not hurt her sore eyes. As a matter of fact, she spent so much time crying on the train that the conductor thought she must be attending a funeral. To make things worse, the only pair of shoes she had were two sizes too small, so her feet hurt constantly.

On March 3, 1887, Anne Mansfield Sullivan finally arrived exhausted in Tuscumbia, Alabama. She was met by Helen Keller's mother, Kate Adams Keller, and her stepson, James Keller, who had driven the carriage to the station to meet every train for the past two days. Due to communication in those days, no one was sure exactly when Anne Sullivan was to arrive.

As the carriage rolled down Tuscumbia's main street, Annie was amazed at the quietness of the countryside—so different from the bustling town of Boston. More than anything, Annie wanted to meet her new pupil, Helen Adams Keller. As she was driven down the long drive lined with magnolias to the Keller's home, Ivy Green, she spotted Helen waiting in the porch doorway. She expected to see a pale, delicate child, but Helen was anything but that. Helen was strong and unrestrained in her movements about the porch. Helen's face looked intelligent, but Annie noticed that she did not smile.

Annie had just shaken hands with Helen's father, Captain Arthur H. Keller, when Helen rushed at her with such a force that it would have knocked her down if Captain Keller had not been standing behind her. The first thing Helen did was to feel Annie's face, dress, and bag. She had enough experience with visitors and their luggage to know that they often brought along sweets as presents for her. As Helen felt Annie's luggage, she felt for a keyhole and made a sign of turning a key and pointing to the bag. After a tussle with Helen, Annie distracted Helen with her watch and convinced her to follow her upstairs to help her unpack, and thus Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan would start their adventure together.

How did Anne Sullivan teach Helen Keller verbs?

Helen Keller learned the word "water," on April 5, 1887. By May 22nd, she knew over 300 words. Nouns were easy to teach. Anne Sullivan would let Helen Keller feel an object, and then she finger-spelled the word to the object into Helen's eager hands. A few repetitions were usually enough for Helen to learn the word.

But verbs were not as easy for Helen to learn or for Annie to teach. Words like "walk," and "run," were easy enough because they could be taught by some action, but when it came to words like "think," and "laugh," Anne Sullivan had to use her imagination. Every time Anne Sullivan spelled a sentence with the word "laugh," Helen wanted to know what it meant. She asked over and over again. Annie tried to explain, but Helen did not understand. Finally Annie laughed and put Helen's hands on her face as she did so. Then she tickled Helen until she laughed and spelled the letters "l-a-u-g-h," into Helen's hand. She did this over and over again until both teacher and student lay in the floor laughing hysterically.

Some words were easier to teach than others. Annie taught Helen the word "in," by spelling "Helen in the wardrobe," and then she put Helen in the wardrobe. However, the word "think" was more difficult. One day, as Helen was counting beads, Anne let her know that she had made a mistake. As Helen sat with the beads in her hand trying to decide what to do next, Annie touch her forehead, and then she spelled into her hand, "t-h-i-n-k." Helen soon learned her first abstract word. Of course, this was only the beginning. Helen would go on to learn many more words in this same manner.

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