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The Miracle-Worker Teacher

Updated on November 2, 2015

Anne Sullivan

Childhood--Anne Sullivan, from Agawam, Massachusetts, was a special kind of teacher. She was the person who was the main theme of a famous Hollywood film called “The Miracle Worker.” The movie depicted the woman who was Helen Keller's teacher.

Hellen Keller was both deaf and dumb. In the movie, actress Anne Bancroft played the part of Hellen's teacher, Anne Sullivan. Many people saw this film in 1962. Actress Ann Bancroft won the Academy Award for Best Actress that year.

The real Anne Sullivan was born in 1866 in a rural community about 100 miles west of Boston. She herself was rendered blind at an early age due to a strange eye infection she contracted, which the doctors at that time were unable to cure. Anne was only 8 years old.

Little did she know that one day in the future, she would become famous for her success in teaching Helen Keller, another disabled person.

Anne Sullivan did not have a very happy childhood. When she was 10 years old, she was forced to live in what people called a "poor house." It was located about 100 miles from her original home, in a town called Tewksbury, Massachusetts, which was near Boston.

Anne remained in the poor house in Tewksbury for four years. She must have thought life had dealt her some bad luck. Her mother had died died and her father could not support his children. In the 19th Century, it was common to see families who fell upon hard times have to place their children into poor houses (like foster homes, but really institutions rather than homes).

The Perkins School--Being an intelligent woman, Anne later was able to study at The Perkins School for the Blind near Boston. She received a good education there and graduated as her class valedictorian.

Meanwhile, doctors, teachers, and charitable institutions nearby were at a loss for what to do about the poor girl named Helen Keller, who was born severely handicapped and almost impossible to communicate with. She was both blind and deaf, a double disadvantage that brought only despair to anyone who saw her.

Helen Keller was from Alabama. Illness overtook her when she was just a baby and resulted in her becoming deaf and blind at only nineteen months of age. The Perkins School recommended Anne Sullivan as Hellen Keller's teacher when Helen's parents reached out to this special school to try to find someone who might help with Helen.

The "Impossible" Task--The difficulties Anne Sullivan went through to try to break into Helen Keller's silent, dark world were depicted vividly in the movie. These nearly impossible tasks were really what made Anne the "miracle worker."

Anne Sullivan spent a year with Helen at Helen's home in Alabama. It was there that Anne started to make progress. She would teach Helen how to spell words by letting her feel an object with one hand, while Anne would spell out the letters with her finger placed in the palm of Helen's other hand.

Such original techniques ultimately succeeded. The teacher and her young student became lifelong friends thereafter.

Legacy--Helen Keller, later in life, wrote an autobiography that told about Anne Sullivan's relentless efforts to teach her. Ms. Sullivan had to find an original way to overcome Ms. Keller's isolation. There really was no common language between them at first, and no precedent of anyone ever succeeding in such a task previously.

The Anne Sullivan Memorial in her home town of Agawam, Massachusetts, displays a statue dedicated to Anne. An historical photograph in history books shows the young Anne Sullivan on Cape Cod, near Boston, with Hellen Keller, her 8-year-old student in 1888 after the two completed their first year together and started to make some progress in communicating together.

Helen Keller was with Ms. Sullivan at her death in 1936. Anne Sullivan is immortalized in a statue in Tewksbury, the town where she lived in the poor house. The statue shows her teaching Helen Keller.

The fame of Anne Sullivan and her student Helen Keller spread across America during their lifetimes. Author Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) was alive also at that time and became a great admirer of both Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller. In fact, Mark Twain was the first to use the expression “miracle worker” when he described Ms. Sullivan.

In Ms. Sullivan's home town of Agawam, Massachusetts, there is a Saint Patrick's Committee who is proud of her Irish-American ancestry. Every year the committee honors one of their members with an “Anne Sullivan Award.” The criteria is to choose someone who deserves appreciation for accomplishing an unusually difficult task.


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