The Story of My Life
Helen dedicates her book:
To ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL
Who has taught the deaf to speak
and enabled the listening ear to hear speech
from the Atlantic to the Rockies,
I dedicate this Story of My Life.
The Story of My Life was written while Helen Keller, then in her early twenties, was a student at Radcliffe College. It is a moving story of the education of a child with the extreme handicap of being deaf and blind. The book begins with a rather vague description of young Helen’s earliest memories, before she became deaf and blind at the age of nineteen months, but most of it narrates her teaching by Anne Sullivan of the Perkins Institute for the Blind.
Although this is the writing of a young person, this is a passionate reading experience that describes life for a woman who was hearing- and sight-impaired at the turn of the twentieth century in the U.S… It’s an amazing story of obstacles overcome at a time when even women who had few physical disabilities were limited in scope with regard to education and career. The fact that Helen Keller did all these things with the physical obstacles that she had makes it even more admirable.
When Helen was 19 months old, she contracted “an acute congestion of the stomach and the brain” (perhaps scarlet fever or meningitis?) which led to her losing her vision and hearing. She had been able to see and hear before, but now she couldn’t, and this sudden isolation lead to Keller developing behavioral problems, and many in her family felt that she should be institutionalized.
When she was 6, her mother read Dickens’s travel writing called “American Notes”, and found out about the successful education of another blind/deaf young girl. Her parents sent her to Baltimore to see a famous doc there who had treated this other girl, and he then introduced her to Alexander Graham Bell (working with deaf children at the time and inventor of telephone). Through Bell, the family learned about a good school of the blind, and there, the family was put in touch with Anne Sullivan, who was also sight-impaired and who would become Helen’s governess and companion.
Proficient in a handful of different languages, well read, eloquent – this is all amazing because of her disability (she was hearing and visually impaired) learning esoteric subjects as Greek and maths.
Here is how Keller feels going to college at Radcliffe:
Before me I saw a new world opening in beauty and light, and I felt within me the capacity to know all things. In the wonderland of Mind I should be as free as another. Its people, scenery, manners, joys, tragedies should be living, tangible interpreters of the real world.
However, she missed having time to reflect during her undergrad years: “One goes to college to learn, it seems, not to think… When one enters the portals of learning, one leaves the dearest pleasures – solitude, books, and imagination – outside with the whispering pines…” and it’s tough to concentrate on the information being taught as there is so much so fast (as it was being translated into manual language spelled into her hands by teacher Anne Sullivan). Keller writes that she “cannot make notes during the lectures because my hands are busy listening…” What a great description.
Her attitude is fabulous. For example, here is a quotation from her about her early college experience:
For, after all, everyone who wishes to gain true knowledge must climb the Hill Difficulty alone, and since there is no royal road to the summit, I must zigzag it in my own way. I slip back many times, I fall, I stand still, I run against the edge of hidden obstacles, I lose my temper and find it again and keep it better, I trudge on, I gain a little, I feel encouraged, I get more eager and climb higher and begin to see the widening horizon. Every struggle is a victory.
Books were extremely important to Keller as they helped her to learn what other people learned through sight and hearing. The first book she remembers making an impact was Little Lord Fauntleroy which was spelled out on her hand, one letter at a time. When she reads a good book, “My physical limitations are forgotten—my world lies upward, the length and the breadth and the sweep of the heavens are mine!”
The Story of My Life is far from the cry for help that it might easily have been. The tone is one of joy. Keller emphasizes her early love of language. She recalls learning to speak before she lost her ability to see or hear and her desperate attempts to reawaken this ability. Throughout the book, there is a strong emphasis on her love of language, especially the written word, which was, after all, one of the few ways she had of relating to the outside world.
The major emphasis of A Story of My Life is on the work of Sullivan, whom Helen always in this book refers to as Teacher. As subsequent writings made clearer, Sullivan’s methods were far from orthodox at the time. She communicated with Helen mostly by use of the manual alphabet, although lip-reading with fingers was also attempted. At the time, oral communication was almost universally stressed among educators of deaf children.
Keller makes it clear that she cannot speak intelligibly, and stresses that she probably never will. In fact, when Keller became a social activist later in life, she made a number of attempts to improve her speech, although her double disability made this difficult. After her graduation, she was regularly accompanied by Sullivan on lecture tours. Sullivan acted as an interpreter as well as an additional speaker on educational methods.
The Story of My Life is a tale of triumph over difficulties that would be insurmountable to most children. Keller went on to become a noted author, speaker, and political activist, advocating human rights for people not only with physical disabilities but also with social problems. Many of her later works were largely autobiographical, but there was always an emphasis on the inherent power of the individual to journey through life with hope. The Story of My Life is the first chapter in such a journey.
Quotes from The Story of My Life:
The Story of My Life is full of quotes and. They’ve all struck a chord with me, and I hope they would as well with others. One in particular really stayed with me:
- I have learned many things I should never have known had I not tried the experiment. One of them is the precious science of patience, which teaches us that we should take our education as we take a walk in the country, leisurely, our minds hospitably open to impressions of every sort. Such knowledge floods the soul unseen with a soundless tidal wave of deepening thought.
- “One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar.”
- “For, after all, everyone who wishes to gain true knowledge must climb the Hill Difficulty alone, and since there is no royal road to the summit, I must zigzag it in my own way. I slip back many times, I fall, I stand still, I run against the edge of hidden obstacles, I lose my temper and find it again and keep it better, I trudge on, I gain a little, I feel encouraged, I get more eager and climb higher and begin to see the widening horizon. Every struggle is a victory. One more effort and I reach the luminous cloud, the blue depths of the sky, the uplands of my desire.”
- “Knowledge is love and light and vision.”
- “Do not think of today’s failures, but of the success that may come tomorrow.”
- “Trying to write is very much like trying to put a Chinese puzzle together. We have a pattern in mind which we wish to work out in words; but the words will not fit the spaces, or, if they do, they will not match the design. ”
- “The hands of those I meet are dumbly eloquent to me. The touch of some hands is an impertinence. I have met people so empty of joy, that when I clasped their frosty finger-tips, it seemed as if I were shaking hands with a northeast storm. Others there are whose hands have sunbeams in them, so that their grasp warms my heart. It may be only the clinging touch of a child’s hand; but there is as much potential sunshine in it for me as there is in a loving glance for others. A hearty handshake or a friendly letter gives me genuine pleasure.”
- “They took away what should have been my eyes (but I remembered Milton’s Paradise). They took away what should have been my ears, (Beethoven came and wiped away my tears) They took away what should have been my tongue, (but I had talked with god when I was young) He would not let them take away my soul, possessing that I still possess the whole.”
- “I wonder what becomes of lost opportunities? Perhaps our guardian angel gathers them up as we drop them, and will give them back to us in the beautiful sometime when we have grown wiser, and learned how to use them rightly.”
- “Literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourses of my book friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness.”