I have many favorite books, but the first book to touch my core and influence my life was The Helen Keller Story. I was ten years old when I checked it out of my school’s library, and I couldn’t put it down until I had devoured every page. I was a good reader, but not an avid reader. I became mesmerized by Helen’s courage and determination to express herself, despite her afflictions. The experience was so significant that I began to look for other inspiring books.
At the age of two, Helen Keller was stricken by an illness that left her blind and deaf. Her family had no idea how to help her learn to communicate. As I read her story, I could imagine the darkness and loneliness of a little girl who could get her needs met only through explosive temper tantrums. Helen had no way of relating to those around her. Because she couldn’t hear, she hadn’t learned to speak. She became a wild animal with no purpose, no future, and no hope.
Along came Anne Sullivan who recognized Helen’s intelligence and potential. Despite initial challenges with the wild, unsocialized child, Sullivan became determined to reach her. She discovered that locked inside Helen was a bright, capable girl, frustrated by her inability to connect with others.
Sullivan was a gifted teacher who had studied at the Perkins School for the Blind. She, herself, was nearly blind in one eye. She was only twenty when she became Helen’s governess. Helen’s family had given up hope of ever communicating with the uncontrollable girl. Convinced that language was the key to helping the six-year-old child, Sullivan first had to undo the damage Helen’s parents had inflicted by spoiling her instead of teaching and disciplining her.
Starting with fingerspelling, Anne finally succeeded in unlocking the prison of Helen’s affliction. She committed to being Helen’s teacher for life and even helped her become the first deaf-blind college graduate. Anne Sullivan was indeed a “miracle worker.”
I related to The Helen Keller Story because I, too experienced darkness in my childhood. I was a sickly child who suffered from allergic eczema and asthma. I felt different, like I didn’t belong in my family or in my school. I needed to vent my frustration and anger. I needed assurance that my future would be better. But the adults in my life, who had lived through The Great Depression and a world war, had little empathy for a child who should be grateful for her decent life. I learned to keep my feelings to myself.
For many years, my practice of bottling negative emotions caused me to be depressed. I’ve heard it said that depression is anger turned inward. As a child, my anger, frustration and anxiety were not accepted emotions by adults. Sometimes I was even ridiculed and told I was too sensitive or that I dwelled on things too much. In other words, my feelings weren’t important, and I should get over them.
One time I drew angry circles on my bedroom wall with a black crayon and was punished for it. Another time, I scratched gouges in my aunt’s new, wooden sewing machine console. I didn’t understand why I felt angry, and to this day I don’t remember what precipitated my destructive actions. What I do recall is that I couldn’t control myself. Like Helen, I simply exploded from holding it all inside.
Helen Keller is a hero because of the obstacles she surmounted and the goals she accomplished despite her extreme limitations. But Anne Sullivan is the true hero of this story. She could have given up on her pupil. I’m sure she was tempted at times, but instead, she persevered until she experienced a break-through. It happened at a water pump. Sullivan had been fingerspelling words for Helen, introducing her to labels for items in her everyday life, like doll, egg, flower, and leaf. Suddenly, after weeks of consistent practice, Helen understood that the water she felt running over her hand could be labeled by the fingerspelling w-a-t-e-r. From that point forward, a new world of language opened, and she began to communicate with the people around her. Without the loving, determined guidance of Anne Sullivan, Helen Keller would have been committed to an institution, destined to live out her days in ignorance and silence. Anne Sullivan was Helen Keller’s salvation.
Music and writing saved me. At an early age I learned that singing and journaling were vehicles for expressing my deepest emotions safely. They still are.
Cindy L. Freeman is the author of two award-winning short stories, a novella, Diary in the Attic, and three published novels: Unrevealed, The Dark Room, and I Want to Go Home. Website: www.cindylfreeman.com; Facebook page: Cindy Loomis Freeman. Her books are available through amazon.com or hightidepublications.com