Anne Sullivan - the intrepid teacher of Helen Keller
"Children require guidance and sympathy far more than instruction."
~ Anne Sullivan (www.brainyquote,com)
Anne Sullivan 1866 - 1936
We all know the story of Helen Keller, a pretty baby born to a southern couple, who contracted a severe case of scarlet fever as an infant, and was rendered blind, deaf and mute as a result of the illness.
Anne Sullivan was the incredible teacher who came to teach and help Helen at the age of six. Anne was quite successful in teaching Helen and the two were inseparable for the rest of Anne's life.
But, how did Anne get to become that incredible teacher? It was because Anne could closely identify with Helen, as Anne, too, was partially blind for the better part of her life and totally blind at the end of her life. Anne, like Helen, was an unruly child and difficult to teach, just like Helen was for Anne. These two were the perfect team together and accomplished so much during their lifetimes.
Anne Sullivan was born Johanna Mansfield Sullivan in 1866, in Feeding Hills, Agawam, Massachusetts. She was called Anne or Annie all her life from birth. Her parents were Thomas and Alice (Cloesy) Sullivan, two Irish immigrants who were illiterate and penniless their entire lives.
Anne's mother, Alice, died from tuberculosis m 1874 when Anne was ten. Her father, Thomas, an alcoholic, was unable to cope with taking care of four children; Anne had one brother, Jimmie, and two sisters, Ellen and Mary. Thomas eventually abandoned the family.
At this point, the two oldest, Anne and Jimmie were sent to the Tewksbury Almshouse (the poor house) in Tewksbury , Massachusetts. It is believed the other two girls went to live with relatives.
The almshouse was dirty, rundown and overcrowded and Anne and Jimmie had a difficult adjustment to the unending poverty they experienced there. Anne lived there for four years, but Jimmie died from a tubercular hip shortly after arriving at the almshouse. Anne grew up very lonely for her brother Jimmie as they had always been close.
Anne was illiterate at this time, unruly, outspoken, and rude. She had not had a proper upbringing at home and with so much neglect at the almshouse, she was a wild and impetuous child, quick to anger and with an awful temperament.
At the age of five, Anne had contracted trachoma, an eye disease which was left untreated and she was slowly going blind. Trachoma is a disease of bacteria of the eye and left untreated affected her cornea and she struggled with her sight all her life. Here eyesight was ignored at the poorhouse.
When Anne was the age of fourteen, special commission members arrived at the almshouse to inspect it and at this time Anne, outspoken as she was, told them she wanted to attend school and become educated.
So, in 1880, she was sent by the commission members to the Perkins School for the Blind, located in South Boston. Because of her lack of social graces and her nasty temperament, she had a difficult time adjusting to the school and her classmates. Many of the children who attended there were from very wealthy and well-known families. Here was poverty-stricken Anne who spoke up and spoke her mind whenever she felt like it, and so there were fireworks many times in the classroom.
The teachers at Perkins worked very hard with Anne to improve her behavior and teach her some social graces. When Anne had calmed down and applied herself to her studies, her teachers discovered what an intelligent and gifted student they had on their hands.
With their guidance and direction, Anne thrived and earned excellent academic marks. She began tutoring the younger students and eventually graduated from Perkins at the age of twenty as class valedictorian.
During her time at Perkins, she had several surgeries on her eyes which partially restored her eyesight. She gained partial vision and with the help of glasses was able to see and get around as a person with normal vision.
Upon Anne's graduation, the school's director was approached by a family in Alabama who wanted a governess and teacher for their blind, deaf and mute child named Helen Keller. The director recommended Anne Sullivan for the job, asked her if she would take it and Anne accepted.
"My heart is singing for joy this morning! A miracle has happened! The light of understanding has shone upon my little pupil's mind, and behold, all things are changed."
~ Anne Sullivan (www.brainyquote.com)
"People seldom see the halting and painful steps by which the most insignificant success is achieved."
~ Anne Sullivan (www.brainyquote.com)
A Lifelong Collaboration Begins
Anne, only twenty years old and still with some difficulty seeing, took the train from South Boston to Tuscumbia, Alabama where the Kellers lived in a large plantation house. She had never before been in the south and was stunned to see African-American servants at the plantation as to her the Civil War was far over.
The very first night there, at dinner, headstrong Anne quarreled with Helen's parents about the Civil War and the subject of slavery. Mr. Keller was not bemused and so angry with her he was about to send her back north when Mrs. Keller intervened and begged for Anne to stay. Mr. Keller took his wife's pleas seriously and allowed Anne to stay. So, Anne started off on the wrong foot and the Keller's realized they had a strong-willed teacher for their daughter.
Anne met Helen, six years old, immediately and observed that she was an unruly, bad-mannered and animal-like child. She had never had any discipline from her parents and ran wild. Helen's behavior was not much different from Anne's when Anne was a child.
Anne immediately began communicating with Helen through sign language and showed great maturity and innovation in teaching her pupil. Anne had brought a doll as a present for Helen and signed D-O-L-L into Helen's hand. Helen didn't understand and wasn't having any of this with this new woman present.
First, as her teachers had done with her at Perkins, Anne worked on teaching Helen appropriate behavior and some social graces to her also. For this reason, Anne was probably the perfect and only teacher to be able to handle Helen at this point. Once the behavior was under control, Anne worked on gaining Helen's confidence. Anne was determined and persevered by continually signing the names of objects in Helen's hands.
It took approximately one month before Helen experienced the necessary break-through to learning. Anne was splashing rushing water from the outdoor pump and signing W-A-T-E-R in Helen's hand, when Helen finally made the connection between the signing in her hand stood for the object in her hand.
From that point on, Anne was able to properly communicate with Helen through sign language and Helen, for the first time in her life, was able to learn. Helen drove Anne ragged as she had Anne sign every object she could touch or pick up. Anne found Helen to be a bright, intelligent eager and quick learner, much as Anne had been herself at Perkins school.
From this point on Anne remained as Helen's teacher and when Helen was older as her life companion. They were never separated again until Anne's death at the age of seventy. they continually lived, worked and traveled together.
"Among the great teachers of all time, she (Anne) occupies a commanding and conspicuous place . . . .The touch of her hand did more than illuminate the pathway of a clouded mind; it literally emancipated a soul."
~ Bishop James E. Freeman, upon Anne Sullivan's death. (wikipedia)
Anne and Helen Embark on the World
Anne continued to teach Helen at the Keller plantation, but by 1888, Anne encouraged Helen's parents to send Helen to the Perkins School for the Blind where she would have an appropriate education learning in all areas and subjects.
So Anne and Helen embarked for South Boston and Anne stayed with Helen and continued to teach her also at the Perkins School. Here, Helen was a remarkable and gifted student, just as Anne had been.
Helen Keller became the poster child for the Perkins School and she brought in funds and donations whenever she attended functions with Anne. The Perkins School became the most famous and sought-after school for the blind in the U.S.
When Helen graduated from the Perkins School, she and Anne moved to New York City so Helen could attend the Wright-Humason School for the Deaf. Here Anne helped Helen to acquire the skills of oral speech, although at times it was difficult to understand Helen because she had been deaf since infancy and had never really heard her voice.
In 1900, Helen Keller began attending Radcliffe College, outside Boston. Anne was by her side during her studies. She signed the contents of lectures into Helen's hand and spent hours conveying information from textbooks to Helen.
Helen Keller became the first deaf-blind person to graduate from college and she graduated from Radcliffe with a B.A. degree with honors.
In 1905, Anne was helping Helen to write her autobiography to be published and met and married John Albert Macy (1877-1932) an instructor and literary critic at Harvard University. He helped Helen to publish her book.
When John and Anne married, he moved in with Anne and Helen and all three lived together. The marriage, however, fell apart after a few years and Macy left the house. He and Anne lived separate lives until their deaths but never formally divorced.
After graduation, Anne traveled with Helen on her lecture tours. She helped Helen in drafting her speeches and sometimes spoke for her as Helen's speech was hard to understand at times.
In later life, Anne and Helen struggled financially and actually toured with a vaudeville theater circuit to earn money to live. On stage, they would share their story of triumph with the fascinated audiences listening.
During these years, Anne's eyesight declined and became quite impaired and by 1935, Anne was completely blind. She died in 1936 in Forest HIlls, Queens, New York, with Helen by her side. Anne was cremated and her ashes were placed in the National Cathedral in Washington, DC.
When Helen Keller died in 1968, her ashes were placed in the cathedral next to those of Anne's.
Anne Sullivan's work of teaching Helen as a child has been immortalized in the Broadway play and film, The Miracle Worker.
Copyright (c) 2013 Suzannah Wolf Walker all rights reserved
Vintage film of Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller
- Anne Sullivan Macy
Online museum from the American Foundation for the Blind shows Anne Sullivan Macy (1866-1936) through her own words as well as through the eyes of others. It features photographs, letters, a biography, chronology, and recommended reading.
- Perkins School for the Blind
Perkins School for the Blind, est. 1829, where Helen Keller and her teacher Anne Sullivan were educated, helps people who are blind or deafblind reach their greatest possible independence.
- Braille Bug
American Foundation for the Blind (AFB) Braille Bug is a kids' site that teaches sighted children grades 3 through 6 about braille, and encourages literacy among sighted and visually impaired children in a fun environment packed with facts, inform