Saturday, June 29, 2013

My Backyard - Seeing the World Through Helen Keller's Eyes

Inspirational. Amazing. Extraordinary.
So many words to choose from to describe Helen Keller. A woman who changed the world, changed how the world looks at and treats the visually and hearing impaired. A woman who personified hope, strength and determination.

I've been a fan of Helen since I first heard her story when I was a young girl. I was mesmerized with her tale, her struggles, her triumphs.

Now as an adult I decided to re-visit her story. And come to understand her in a different light. From an adult perspective.

I knew Helen was born in Alabama in 1880. She lost her sight and hearing when she was a small child and became trapped in a dark and scary world. A visually-impaired teacher became her rescuer and was the catalyst for Helen's remarkable transformation. She was a quick learner and went on to earn an education. Not just in grade school, but also in college. During her lifetime, Helen gained fame as an acclaimed and important author and was acquainted with many notables of her day. According to Mark Twain, "The two most interesting people of the 19th century were Napoleon and Helen Keller".

But I wanted to learn more. And I thought I should start with an important part of Helen's upbringing. The school. The Perkins School For The Blind.
Recently, my big brother was able to assist me with my wish. He works at a group home with deafblind young adults. One of the residents receives services at Perkins. (FYI - On two occasions, my brother ran in the Boston Marathon as a member of the Perkins team.) He arranged for us to tour the school that played such an instrumental role in Helen's education and rise in prominence in not only the visually impaired community but in the eyes of the world.

I met my brother and his wife at the entrance of the Perkins School for the Blind (now simply called "Perkins") in Watertown, Massachusetts. We were greeted by a tour guide who delivered an informative history of the school. How it came to be. How it has grown. And where it is today. There's probably those of you who are not into history and may find the re-hashing of past events boring, but I can assure you, hearing about the establishment of the school will certainly grab and hold your interest. Its just so inspiring to learn about the obstacles and challenges the founders faced and overcame to start and then maintain the school in order to assist those students who until that point had very few, if any, resources to help them integrate into their community.
Helen Keller, unwittingly or not, became the face of the accomplishments of the school. And the face, and later, voice, of the boys and girls, men and women who also dealt with similar challenges: being visually and hearing impaired.

Perkins is the oldest school of its kind in the United States. It was founded in 1829 in Boston by Dr. John Fisher. He appointed its first director, Samuel Gridley Howe. The school came to the attention of the great writer, Charles Dickens, who wrote about a deaf-blind student at Perkins, Laura Bridgman, in his book "American Notes". It was this chain of events that led Helen Keller's mother to learn of the wonderful work being done at Perkins when she read Dickens' book. In 1887, then director Michael Anagnos sent a Perkins graduate, Annie Sullivan, to Alabama to work with a very young Helen. A year later, Annie brought Helen to Perkins where she thrived and continued her learning. In 1912, the school moved from Boston to its current home in Watertown where it remains dedicated to its mission to "provide education and services that build productive, meaningful lives for children and adults around the world who are blind, deafblind or visually impaired with or without other disabilities".

We were shown the evolution of the tools used to assist the students in their education. From the primitive, cumbersome use of embossed books to the modern day braille writers. I was surprised and pleased to hear that the Perkins influence is felt around the world. We met and chatted with two staff members who have traveled as far as Saudi Arabia and Australia to work with schools that are also dedicated to educating blind and deafblind students.

Our guide led us to the impressive gym facilities and told of the physical activities and sports that the students take part in. Astoundingly, teams of Perkins students often face off in sports against teams of students with no physical challenges from local public schools and often fare very well!

We also were allowed to peek inside a studio at the school where volunteers (including some local celebrities) are recorded as they read all types of books. These recordings are then made available as digital talking books to visually impaired patrons.

One of the highlights of the tour came as we were winding down our visit. Our guide surprised me with an audio recording of Helen speaking! From my research, I knew Helen had always struggled with her inability to speak. She was frustrated and longed to be able to express herself verbally. But Helen didn't seem to ever take no for an answer and worked very hard with her teacher Annie to learn how to speak. From the recording, it was evident that Helen's halting speech was not very clear and hard to decipher. But I found that by closing my eyes and concentrating, I began to understand her words. Goosebumps sprang up on my arms and a lump formed in my throat. For me, it was an emotional connection - the woman I read about, heard about, was suddenly very real. Flesh and blood. I felt her spirit reach out to me. And I was thrilled and humbled, all at the same time.

A few weeks later, I made the short drive from my home to Wrentham, Massachusetts where Helen made her home during and after her time at Perkins. The home she lived in as an adult with Annie, and Annie's husband, is still standing - it is privately owned and not open for public viewing.

I then found my way to the town common. It is here where a stone monument was erected to honor Helen.

There's still so much I want to learn about this remarkable woman. But the most important thing I've learned so far is to develop my own brand of tenacity. Her unending determination to triumph over diversity has inspired me. I'm envious of her moxie and vow to find my own inner chutzpah.

From now on when life's stressors seem too overwhelming and difficult to handle, I will try to channel my inner Helen Keller. And maybe, if I'm lucky, I will be half as successful as she was.

Who inspires you?
And how does that person influence you and how you live your life?


  1. I love reading your chronicles. Good stuff

    1. Thanks Damon! I love that you visit and enjoy my blog.


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