Helen Keller is renowned for what she did with her life; how she overcame the difficulties handed to her and managed to become a great success. She graduated from college at Cambridge, was an author, preformed in vaudeville and in a movie, and was a world traveler. For all of Helen’s hard work and determination, it must be acknowledged that without her teacher, Johanna (Anne) Sullivan, it is entirely possible that none of Helen Keller’s achievements ever would have happened.
On April 14, 1866, Anne Sullivan was born in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts and her start in life could hardly have been filled with any more hardships than it was. Poverty, abuse, illness, and death were with her from the start. Her parents, Thomas and Alice Sullivan, were poor Irish immigrants who had to deal not only with poverty, but also with Alice Sullivan’s tuberculosis and Thomas Sullivan’s alcoholism. More hardship fell on the family when Anne contracted trachoma, a painful condition caused by infection, which left her nearly blind. As if all that wasn’t enough for the family to contend with, Anne’s younger brother, Jimmie, suffered from a tubercular hip. The death of her mother was another blow for Anne, who was only eight-years-old at the time and was left to deal with her younger brother, her abusive father, and the running of the house. That situation didn’t last long and by 1876 Anne and her brother found themselves in the Tewksbury almshouse after their father had abandoned them. Anne’s brother died after they went to the almshouse and Anne was left alone.
It was a desperate state of affairs; she was poor, a child, nearly blind, undoubtedly grieving for her brother, and alone in the world with no one to care for or protect her. While she did have a few operations done on her eyes, their condition really didn’t improve.
And still, with circumstances all set against her, young Anne found the strength and courage to start working to better her lot in life. Because she made the request to leave so that she might get some education, Anne was allowed to go to the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, Massachusetts in 1880.
At the Perkins School, Anne was unlikely to have been very happy, at least at first. Her background put her at odds with many of the more well-to-do students and she had a fierce temper that nearly got her expelled more than once, but she was determined and intelligent. Anne managed to not only catch up with her classmates, but also get herself to the point where she graduated as the valedictorian. She learned the manual alphabet in order to communicate with a friend who was both deaf and blind. Being able to use the manual alphabet was a fortunate skill to have when an offer came for Anne to teach a six-year-old little girl in Tuscumbia, Alabama by the name of Helen Keller.
An illness had left Helen Keller blind, deaf, and mute since the age of nineteen-months-old which meant that her ability to communicate with the world around her was extremely limited. Her parents, Arthur and Kate Keller, went to inventor and teacher Alexander Graham Bell for help. Bell directed them to the Perkins School and Anne Sullivan was asked if she would be Helen’s teacher.
Anne went to Helen’s home and, after some time, there came a moment that must have seemed near magical to both Helen and Anne when Anne held Helen’s hand under a stream of water and spelled out the word ‘water’ to her. Something, some missing piece of a puzzle, suddenly fit together and Helen understood what Anne was trying to communicate to her.
Helen learned remarkably quickly and, after a few years, Anne took her to Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Boston because Helen wanted to learn how to speak. Anne used a method to teach Helen that was called the Tad-Oma method which involved the student putting a hand against the cheek of their instructor to let them feel the vibrations made when their instructor spoke. Helen spent a good part of her life trying to speak intelligibly.
An immensely important person in Anne and Helen’s life seems to have been the man who played a large role in bringing them together, Alexander Graham Bell. He gave Anne a great deal of emotional support, but also would be a champion when he spoke for them after Helen was accused of plagiarism and when a school’s director made a failed attempt to take custody of Helen by accusing Anne of being so hard so her that Helen’s health was in jeopardy.
Helen enrolled in Radcliffe College in 1900 and Anne went with her, translating all the lessons for her and reading to her for hours a day and, as a result of Anne’s dedication, Helen was able to earn her Bachelors of Arts degree in 1904.
Anne and Helen bought a house in Wrentham, Massachusetts, but there was a third member of the household – John Macy who would eventually marry Anne. Anne and Helen had met Macy in college and he’d grown to be a great help to them as he’d learned the manual alphabet in order to communicate with Helen enough that he could help edit her writings and, then, get them published. Anne hesitated about accepting Macy’s proposal, but in the end she did accept, apparently with Helen’s full approval. Sadly, while they didn’t divorce, Anne and John Macy did separate after just nine years. He left their home in 1914.
In 1915 Anne was awarded a Teacher's Medal at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco and she was called a pioneer by Doctor Maria Montessori. Later in life, in the year 1930, Anne and Helen were both given honorary degrees by Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania but it took Anne two years before she would accept it.
While graduating from college is a major accomplishment for anyone, Helen had many other successes to her name. She had her book, “The Story of My Life” published in 1902, two years before she’d graduated college, was in a movie called “Deliverance” and preformed on vaudeville. She worked for various causes such as racial equality, socialism, and for the American Foundation for the Blind.
In 1916 Anne was diagnosed with tuberculosis, although it later turned out that it was a wrong diagnosis, and Anne was ordered to go to Lake Placid to heal. While Anne did go to Lake Placid, shortly after that she went to Puerto Rico and happily spent five months. After she returned to America from Puerto Rico, Anne and Helen were occupied with traveling, giving lectures, and doing their advocacy work.
Anne’s sight began to worsen in 1927 and got so bad that in 1929 one of her eyes had to be removed. When her eyesight began to deteriorate, Anne trained another person, Polly Thomson, in the use of the manual alphabet so Helen would still get the help she needed. For the sake of Anne’s health, Anne, Helen, and Polly went to Britain in 1930 then went again in 1933.
On October 20, 1936, after having a coronary thrombosis, Anne Sullivan died. She was seventy-years-old.