What were the key events which brought Helen Keller out of her “prison?”
In 1886, Keller’s mother, inspired by an account in Charles Dickens’ American Notes of the successful education of another deaf and blind woman, Laura Bridgman, dispatched Keller, accompanied by her father, to seek out physician J. Julian Chisolm for advice. Chisholm referred the Kellers to Alexander Graham Bell, who was working with deaf children at the time. Bell advised them to contact the Perkins Institute for the Blind, which was then located in South Boston. Michael Anagnos, the school’s director, asked 20-year-old former student Anne Sullivan, herself visually impaired, to become Keller’s instructor.
Sullivan arrived at Keller’s house in March 1887. Keller locked her in a closet. For a long time. And hid the key. After her strenuous captivity, Sullivan attempted to tame this child. She did this by spelling the words into Keller’s hand. She started with “d-o-l-l,” because she had brought a doll to Keller as a present. Keller was frustrated, at first, because she did not understand that every object had a word uniquely identifying it. In fact, when Sullivan was trying to teach Keller the word for “mug”, Keller became so frustrated she broke the mug. Keller’s breakthrough in communication came the next month, when she realized that the motions her teacher was making on the palm of her hand, while running cool water over her other hand, symbolized the idea of “water”; she then nearly exhausted Sullivan demanding the names of all the other familiar objects in her world.
Some time afterwards Sullivan brought Keller raised cardboard letters. It was in this way that Keller learned the alphabet. Sullivan then found that a new technology had developed, and it was amazingly groundbreaking.
Raised letter books.
This allowed Keller to “read” not just words, but entire stories. Her favorite was Little Lord Fauntleroy. She never explained why.
It was at this point that Sullivan decided to start to explain more complex things to Keller. At least she tried. While they were having sort of fingerdash conversation about the outdoors, Sullivan mentioned a thing called “love.” Keller was, of course, perplexed. When she asked, Sullivan stumbled. She then tried to explain that love was like the sun, and the plants, and a host of other things, but with no success. But Sullivan was no fool, so she gave up. At least for the time being.
Sullivan devised an exercise. She was beginning to teach Keller math, and gave her a string of sorted beads. She told her to string the beads, but in a particular pattern. Keller tried this many times, but never quite managed it. Sullivan then wrote on her forehead, “think.” It was at this point that Keller understood her first abstract concept.