In recent times, Michael and I have agreed that we won’t give each other gifts for Christmas and birthdays – that we would much prefer to spend some time together choosing to put that money towards something more meaningful.
That didn’t stop Michael finding a little something to give me for my birthday in January this year. Despite my love for my Kindle (having just returned from 5+ weeks overseas, it had been my constant companion), Michael decided to buy me a real, old-fashioned, paper-and-ink book – The Story of My Life by Helen Keller.
We had previously had a conversation about Helen Keller – we both had a hazy recollection from somewhere in our primary school education that Ms Keller had been both deaf and blind – and had somehow developed the capacity to interact at a high level with those around her. Michael had obviously retained that little snippet of conversation and when he came across a copy of this book, decided it might be a good read.
He was absolutely right. The book comprises an autobiographical section by Helen herself, an account of her education by her (too often forgotten) teacher Anne Sullivan, a section by John Macy, friend and Harvard English instructor, to fill in any factual gaps, as well as a collection of letters from both Helen and Anne. Through this method of compilation, it presents a variety of perspectives on the lives of not one, but two extraordinary women, who overcame seemingly insurmountable hurdles to bring the one girl from a life of darkness and frustration, to a world of “thinking fair thoughts, and dreaming bright dreams”.
It’s a book that I highly recommend – so I won’t delve too deeply into the actual content or reveal each of the touching, extraordinary moments (though the book is rich in such discoveries).
Rather I wanted to share the impact that the story had on me. I was struck by many things – not least a fascination at the use of words like “see” and “listen”, as Helen describes her interactions with the world, and her vivid descriptions of the intricacies of the world around her, that one would assume are only to be known through visual observation, such as colour, or the height of a great tree.
But at a higher level, I was in sheer awe of the capacity of the human spirit.
Helen’s spirit drove her to overcome incredible hurdles to gain command of language, in a time when a set method or instruction for teaching such students did not exist (Helen was born in 1880). Her teacher, Anne, represents such a pivotal part of this story and on conclusion of the book it is clear that the challenge was one that both women, together, hand-in-hand, had overcome.
Helen eloquently captures the beauty of language and the innate human desire to communicate and interact with those around us. Of the day she first realised that everything around her had a ‘name’ (when the signs Anne had been making by touching her hand to describe objects finally had a meaning for Helen – as she felt running water flow over her hands), she says:
That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free! There were barriers still, it is true, but barriers that could in time be swept away.
Indeed there were many barriers that Helen would come up against – especially since she went all the way through tertiary education, mastering sciences, mathematics, and many languages. There never seemed to be a moment when Helen, and Anne, were not facing a challenge. Yet, through the letters and personal accounts of both women, it’s clear that their determination surpassed any of the hurdles life could throw at them.
Helen’s zest for life – as she bravely canoes, rides a bicycle, climbs trees, masters Latin and Greek, and just generally excels in all areas of her life – certainly provided me with a cause to reflect on what ‘challenges’ I face day to day. I realise that we all have our own battles – our own hurdles, challenges, and barriers to overcome – and that none can ever really be compared. And we each are striving for different goals and are motivated in unique ways. But we can certainly draw inspiration from the amazing lives that have been lived in all manner of circumstances at various times on this earth. The incredible story of Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan is one of those must-read accounts of lives lived with purpose that can inspire us all.