Helen Keller's Teacher
It would be impossible to tell the story of Helen Keller without including that of Annie Sullivan.
Their lives would have been completely different had they not met; each would have been tragically deprived without the other. Since Annie was born first, I shall begin with her.
Annie was born in 1866, in Massachusetts USA.
Her parents were Irish immigrants who had fled from the Potato Famine,and the whole family lived in extreme poverty.
Annie's mother,little more than a child herself,was terminally ill with TB.
Shortly after Annie's birth a rickety stove fell on her and crushed her legs and hip, so she had to walk with crutches.
Annie's father, Tom, was a violent alcoholic who beat her constantly.
She spent a great deal of her childhood hiding from him in cupboards or in the woods.
There were 5 children altogether; only one was healthy.
Ellen and Johnny died in infancy.
Jimmy,Annie's much-loved baby brother, was born with a tubercular growth on his hip,and could only walk with a crutch.
When she was 5 years old, Annie developed Trachoma,an unpleasant eye-disease which meant that her eyes were crusted and her cornea became scarred.
Her sight was very poor indeed.
She said later that she remembered an aunt saying,"She would be quite pretty if it wasnt for her eyes."
Three years later her mother died of TB.
Within two years Tom had abandoned the children and disappeared.
Mary, the healthy one,was taken in by relatives, but nobody wanted Annie and Jimmy, so they were packed off to the POORHOUSE.
Annie was 10 and Jimmy was only 5.
It was February,1876.
Of the 27 abandoned children taken in that year, NOT ONE HAD SURVIVED.
This was not surprising;children roamed freely, mixing with sick, deranged and violent patients.
The place swarmed with rats, mice and cockroaches.
On their first night Annie and Jimmy were put in the "dead house", where corpses were wheeled to await burial....
Three months later, as Annie helped Jimmy to dress, he began to scream with pain and cry "It hurts! It hurts!" pointing to the growth on his hip.
The Doctor was sent for, and he looked very serious.
He said to Annie, "Little girl, your brother will be going on a journey very soon."
Annie said later," Terror swept over me." but nothing could be done.
A week or so later, she woke in the night and Jimmy was gone.
He was in the Dead Room.
She clutched at his little cold body and screamed: they dragged her away, scratching and biting, and dropped her on the ward floor.
Later she wrote,"I longed desperately to die.
I believe very few children have ever felt so desperately alone as I did then."
Annie stayed there for 4 more years,suffering two unsuccessful operations on her eyes.
Her playmates were children covered in syphilitic sores;many of her adult friends were prostitutes and vagabonds.
But it was the only home she knew....
Although she could see nothing but a bewildering, dancing procession of colours, Annie had a dream that one day she would be able to read.
One of her friends told her that there were special schools for blind people.
For once, luck was on Annie's side!
Because of the terribly high death rate at the Poorhouse, the State Board of Charities decided to send a group of investigators. Tales were being told of paupers' corpses being sold for leather, & of a large number of babies being born to female inmates because of lack of supervision.
Somehow, Annie found out when the committee was to arrive: somehow, she found the room where they were to meet.
Imagine their surprise when the door burst open, & into their midst hurtled a skinny, pale, shabby little girl with red and swollen eyes, crying:
"I want to go to school! I want to go to school!"
Lots of questions were asked, & wheels were set in motion.
Some time later a woman came to the Poorhouse & told Annie that she was going away to school.
The year was 1880, the very year that Helen Keller was born.
Annie was 14.
She was sent to the famous Perkins Institute in Boston, but she took a long time to settle.
The Perkins girls made fun of her ugly calico dresses & ridiculed her poor spelling, & looked down on her because she was Irish. Annie was homesick for her friends in the Poorhouse - at least they hadn't laughed at her.
Night after night she cried herself to sleep - she was so often in fights that she was nearly expelled.
But Annie, although impertinent, was intelligent and amusing, & the Director of the School, Michael Anagnos, took up her cause. She learnt to spell and read Braille, & was taught the manual alphabet so that she could spell into the hand of one of her few friends, Laura Bridgeman( a 50-year-old woman who was both deaf and blind).
Annie had two more operations on her eyes - and although there were still lumps and sore ridges, she could at last see to READ!
She was hungry to learn,& when at last she graduated in 1886 she was top of her year, happy and proud in a white dress and pink sash made for her by her house-mother.
Now she was ready to earn a living- but what work was there for a partially-sighted girl with no practical skills?
There was indeed work for her, but it was 1,800 miles away across America.
The next part of the story will introduce you to the second half of an extraordinary partnership.....