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While we all know the general story of Helen Keller, it’s worth exploring a slice of her early childhood and the impact of her teacher, Anne Sullivan. Keller lost her ability to see and hear before her second birthday, and was imprisoned in her own mind. She was unable to communicate, isolated by the inability to see, hear or talk, and began lashing out as she grew older. There was little hope for the young child who became increasingly hostile and ultimately dangerous.
As her frustrations from her inability to communicate grew, her outbursts became increasingly aggressive. At the age of five, she overturned the cradle holding her infant sister out of jealousy (who was caught before hitting the floor by her mother), and once locked her mother in the pantry for three hours. She was becoming desperate, determined to somehow overcome her lack of senses but with no way of knowing how. She writes in her triumphant autobiography, The Story of My Life, “Gradually I got used to the silence and darkness that surrounded me and forgot that it had ever been different, until she came – my teacher – who was to set my spirit free.”
Helen Keller first met Anne Sullivan when she was six years old. Through a mix of desperation, persistence, and hope, Sullivan strove to give Keller the keys to communicate. Immediately Sullivan would use her finger to spell out the names of objects in the palm of Keller’s hand. It wasn’t smooth. Keller notes moments of frustration, a complete lack of understanding for what Sullivan’s efforts meant, and how it could help her. But Sullivan never stopped. She kept trying different words and different ways to build associations. She kept trying to help Keller break out of her own head, and escort her into the surrounding world.
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