Helen Keller was born a healthy baby on 27 July 1880. When she was nineteen months old, an unknown illness left her totally deaf and blind. For the next five years, she was unable to communicate and felt completely cut off from the world. It was when she was 7 years old that an extraordinary twenty-one-year-old, half-blind teacher, Anne Sullivan came to live with Helen and her family. Anne Sullivan gradually taught Helen to read, write and talk. Most importantly, she gave Helen the tools with which to start being conscious.
“Before my teacher came to me, I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world. I cannot hope to describe adequately that unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness.
When I learned the meaning of ‘I’ and ‘me’ and found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me.”
The first ten weeks that Sullivan taught Helen were tumultuous. Sullivan gave Helen what philosopher Daniel Dennett calls “thinking tools.” Just as a carpenter has tools with which to make furniture, thinking tools allow us to approach the exploration of the world and ourselves. Language, mathematics, and art are all thinking tools. Imagine a world without language – in such a world, how would we think?
Dennett also explains how human consciousness is “something that must be learned. These are a set of habits that are not guaranteed to be present at birth.” Helen provides one of the best examples in favor of Dennett’s hypothesis. Once Helen was taught the thinking tools of language and logical thought, she became more aware of herself. Helen said:
“Thought made me conscious of love, joy, and all the emotions. I was eager to know, then to understand, afterward to reflect on what I knew and understood, and the blind impetus, which had before driven me hither and thither at the dictates of my sensations, vanished forever.”
Two Remarkable Human Beings
Helen’s growth was also Sullivan’s. At the age of five, Sullivan (1866 – 1936) contracted trachoma, a terrible eye disease, and became partially blind. Luckily she was sent to the Perkins School for the Blind. This is the oldest school for the blind in the United States. The school taught Sullivan how to use Braille (another thinking tool), and thus to read and write.
Helen and Sullivan forged a deep friendship that lasted their entire lives. Just four months after Sullivan started teaching the young Helen, Helen started dictating letters to her aunts and uncles. Roger Shattuck, in an Introduction to Helen’s book “The World I Live In” writes that “After six months she started using the first-person ‘I’ instead of referring to herself as ‘Helen.’ In a year she was reading and writing in Braille. Sullivan described how she persevered (with Helen) through more than two years of seizing every opportunity to teach Helen the world of words, anytime, anyplace.”
When Helen was admitted to Radcliffe College as an undergraduate, Sullivan accompanied her as her helper. When Helen graduated, in a sense, so did Sullivan.
Helen wrote “The Story of My Life” which became a best seller. Publishers also paid her well for shorter articles, and she became independently well off. She and Sullivan shared a home and later lived nearby.
Through all the adversities she faced, Helen remained an optimist. In her book, “Optimism” she says:
“If I am happy in spite of my deprivations if my happiness is so deep that it is a faith, so thoughtful that it becomes a philosophy of life – if in short, I am an optimist, my testimony to the creed of optimism is worth hearing. Although there are great evils that have not been subdued, and the optimist is not blind to them, yet he is full of hope. Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement; nothing can be done without hope.”
Helen argued forcefully for the need for optimism while facing all the vicissitudes of life. This is a lesson we might all imbibe and live by.
© Kaikhushru Taraporevala