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Helen Keller: 'Some day I shall go to college - but I shall go to Harvard!'

Keller, who became deaf and blind in infancy, not only learned several languages, but also listened to music, wrote poetry, and championed several causes. And yes, she went to Harvard.
BY Uma Asher |   27-06-2017
Helen Keller


Helen Keller

Helen Keller has described her early life as an “unconscious, yet conscious time of nothingness”. Born on June 27, 1880, into a wealthy family (her father owned slaves before the American Civil War) in Tuscumbia, Alabama, Keller lost her vision and hearing due to an illness when she was 19 months old. For the first 7 years of her life, she communicated using simple signs – a shake of the head for “no”, a nod for “yes”, pulling someone’s hand to say “come” or pushing them to say “go”. She recalled in her book The World I Live In: “I did not know that I am. I lived in a world that was a no-world… I had neither will nor intellect.” She recalled that she could feel anger, satisfaction, and desire, but “I never contracted my forehead in the act of thinking... I also recall… the fact that never… did I feel that I loved or cared for anything. My inner life… was a blank without past, present, or future, without hope or anticipation, without wonder or joy or faith.”

Gradually, she realized that she was not like other people. In her book The Story of My Life, she recalled that as a 5-year-old she sometimes stood between two people who were talking and touched their lips. “I could not understand, and was vexed. I moved my lips and gesticulated frantically without result. This made me so angry at times that I kicked and screamed until I was exhausted,” she wrote.
 

The ‘soul dawn’

Keller was nearly 7 when she met her first teacher, a 20-year-old blind woman named Annie Sullivan. Sullivan transformed the little girl’s life by teaching her how to spell with her fingers. Keller regarded this as her “soul dawn”. That summer, all she did was learn the name of every object she touched. She recalled, “The more I handled things and learned their names and uses, the more joyous and confident grew my sense of kinship with the rest of the world… as my knowledge of things grew… my field of inquiry broadened.”

As a child, Keller visited Wellesley College, and later declared, “Some day I shall go to college – but I shall go to Harvard!” When asked why she would not go to Wellesley, she replied that there were only girls there. In The Story of My Life, she wrote, “The thought of going to college took root in my heart… [and] impelled me to enter into competition for a degree with seeing and hearing girls.”

To prepare for Harvard, she attended Cambridge School, whose teachers were not trained to teach deaf-blind students. With Sullivan by her side, Keller took English history, English literature, German, Latin, arithmetic, Latin composition, and other subjects. She read Schiller and Goethe, Shakespeare and Burke.
 

New challenges

There were many challenges. Sullivan could not spell out entire books in Keller’s hands. It was difficult to get books embossed fast enough. But it helped that Keller’s teachers soon became familiar enough with her imperfect speech to answer her questions, and two of them even learned finger-spelling. Keller couldn’t take notes in class, but used a typewriter at home.

In those days Harvard was for men only, and its professors taught women students in a separate institution, Radcliffe College. In 1897, Keller took preliminary exams for Radcliffe, in German, French, Latin, English, and Greek and Roman history. She passed in everything, and received honors in German and English. In 1899, she took final exams, in Greek, Latin, Geometry, and Algebra. Exams were challenging not because the subject matter was difficult, but because of communication issues in proctoring and writing. But she passed.
 

Discovering college life

In 1900, Keller joined Radcliffe. She wrote: “Debarred from the great highways of knowledge, I was compelled to make the journey across country by unfrequented roads – that was all… 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.”

But, like anyone who goes to college today, Keller soon found that she had little time for reflection. She recalled: “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.”

At Radcliffe, she studied French, German, History, and English literature and composition. She read the works of Corneille, Moliere, Racine, Milton, Goethe and Schiller. She graduated cum laude in 1904, becoming the first deaf-blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree. After graduating, Keller championed the cause of the blind all over the world.

A mind of her own

In 1908, concerned that much disability was the result of poor safety standards for industry workers, and that poor people had little access to medical services, Keller joined the American Socialist Party. During and after World War II, she supported the cause of blinded veterans, orphans, and refugees. She participated in movements for the civil rights of African Americans, and the political and reproductive rights of women. In 1929, she wrote: “So long as I confine my activities to social service and the blind, they compliment me extravagantly… but when it comes to discussion of a burning social or political issue, especially if I happen to be… on the unpopular side, the tone changes completely. They are grieved because they imagine I am in the hands of unscrupulous persons who take advantage of my afflictions to make me a mouthpiece for their own ideas… I do not object to harsh criticism so long as I am treated like a human being with a mind of her own.”

In 1960 – 15 years before the US government extended the right to education to children with disabilities, she noted, “We know how expensive special education is, but America should provide this advantage, so unspeakably precious to families whose young blind are growing up to adulthood… this country urgently needs more educational agencies for blind children, more teachers, more embossed books and an increased amount of school materials.”

‘We are all blind and deaf’

In her first public lecture in 1913, she told her audience, “No one of us can do anything alone… we are bound together… It was the hands of others that made me… We live by and for each other. We are all blind and deaf until our eyes are open to our fellow men.” She added, “It is the labor of the poor and ignorant that makes others refined and comfortable. It is strange that we do not see it, and that when we do, we accept the conditions. But I am no pessimist. The pessimist says that man was born in darkness and for death. I believe that man was intended for the light and shall not die. It is a good world and it will be much better when you help me to make it more as I want it.”
 

Read or download (free) The Story of My Life (published in 1903, when Keller was still a student at Radcliffe College) here, and The World I Live In (published in 1908) here.

 
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