Teaching Helen Keller

by Macy Li

A gentle breeze tickled the treetops and the sun danced across the fragrant honeysuckle blossoms as I walked along the path to the front steps of Helen Keller’s home. My slender fingers were wrapped tightly around the big rag doll I had brought along for our first lesson.

“Greetings, Miss Sullivan. You are here to see Helen?” Kate Keller asked me, her long, chic skirt swaying at her ankles as she walked up to me. I smiled and nodded.

“Greetings! I am excited to meet Helen and am sure that we will work well together.” I turned to shake Arthur’s hand before ascending the porch steps.

Helen stood just inside the doorway, wearing a blank expression on her pretty face. She seemed rather expectant, yet disengaged from what was going on around her. I took her hand and led her into the living room, where I seated her on a chair and placed the big rag doll into her lap. Helen was caught in temporary interest as she picked up the doll and played with its arms and legs. I pulled up a chair beside her and cupped her hand in mine. Slowly, I made the letters for “D-O-L-L” in the sign language I knew so well from my own youth. Flexing her fingers, Helen tried to imitate the foreign movements, and eventually her tenacity paid off in a perfect reproduction of the letters. Running to her mother with joy, my mute pupil spelled out what she had just learned.

For the next day’s lesson, I brought a mug full of water. Careful not to slosh any on the nice rug in the Keller’s entryway, I entered the home deliberately, exchanging “hellos” with Kate and Arthur as I made my way toward where Helen sat.  Placing the mug on an out-of-reach table, I fetched Helen’s rag doll from the day prior and pressed it into her open hands. Seeming to lose interest in it quickly, Helen put the doll aside and stuck out her lower lip. I took her hand and passed the mug into her grip. Helen seemed confused and touched the mug cautiously. I made the letters for “M-U-G” in her free hand, and, as with “D-O-L-L” yesterday, she tried to imitate the motions. Once she’d mastered them, I dipped her hand into the lukewarm water, which seemed to startle her. I brushed the mug against her finger and made the letters for mug. I then dipped some of the water onto the palm of her hand and made the letters for water, but the eagerness of yesterday had left her and a confused look flashed across her face. I kept calm and repeated my movements. I tried to show her that the mug was the mug and the water was the water. Making no progress whatsoever as Helen squirmed on her stool, I eventually called it a day and bade Helen a nice evening (although of course she didn’t hear me).

Remembering the success of the rag doll, I procured a porcelain doll with a silky dress and brought it to my next session with Helen.  As she became aware of my arrival, Helen’s face dropped and looked annoyed. She had her big rag doll in her lap when I approached, and I seized the occasion to make the letters “D-O-L-L” again.  Then, I took the rag doll away and put the porcelain doll in her hand. I also made the letters for doll, determined to show Helen that the word applied to both. I continued to repeat ‘D-O-L-L’ in Helen’s hand as she touched both of the objects, but she became frustrated and a bellicose look flashed across her face. Seizing the new porcelain doll, she threw it down on the hard wooden floor.  Although unable to see or hear its many bits strewn like fallen snowflakes, Helen seemed to know the effect of her action—and after it appeared to feel better, jutting her chin proudly. I sighed and got a broom to sweep the broken fragments of the doll into the fireplace.

Feeling uninspired in the stuffy sitting room, I gathered Helen’s hat and led her outside. She seemed pleased by the unexpected cool air and skipped along as we made our way down the beaten-down path to the well. I dragged the water-drawing stool close to the pump, and, seating Helen, started drawing water. When it was flowing, I took Helen’s hand and pulled it under the stream. As the cold liquid flowed over her hand, Helen’s face at first remained still, then she cocked her head sideways. She nodded and her eyes started to sparkle. She smiled and a new look flashed across her face. I could tell that Helen was connecting the dots slowly—the mug was the mug and the water was the water. She spelled “W-A-T-E-R” over and over again, interspersing it with “D-O-L-L” and “M-U-G” with such rapidity that her fingers blurred in my vision.

Smiling, I led her back to the house, noticing anew the beautiful ripe smell of the honeysuckle on both sides of the path.

Macy 6th School Picture

Macy Li is eleven years old and currently in sixth grade. She enjoys skiing, ice skating, singing, and piano. Her favorite subjects at school include biology and Latin. In her spare time, she likes to read, write, and watch TV with friends.

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