Helen Keller: A Thirst for Learning

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• Part 2: Worldwide Renown

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Part 1: From Despair to Hope

Helen Keller wasn't born an especially extraordinary child. But the fever that struck her when she was 19 months old robbed her of her sight and hearing. The result was an extraordinary person, one whose courage and accomplishments continue to inspire people all around the world.

Helen was born in June 27, 1880, in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Her father, Captain Arthur Keller, had served as a soldier in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. When Helen was born, Arthur Keller was a newspaper editor and plantation owner. Helen's mother, Kate (a cousin of Robert E. Lee), worked on the plantation.

Scientists still aren't sure exactly which fever Helen suffered in February 1882. Many people think it was scarlet fever, which killed many of the children it inflicted. Helen didn't die, but her sight and hearing did. And when those senses went, young Helen lost her patience as well.

During the next few years, the Kellers visited doctors, one as far away as Baltimore, but all confirmed the Kellers' worst fears: that Helen would never see or hear again. The Kellers visited Alexander Graham Bell, who eventually invented the telephone and was then working as a teacher of deaf children. Bell couldn't help the Kellers himself but did put them in touch with someone who could. The result was the hiring of Anne Sullivan, who thereafter was to be called "the Miracle Worker."

Sullivan had her own bout with blindness, when she was 5. Later, she had an operation that restored some of her sight. She had no trouble hearing.

Sullivan arrived at the home of the Kellers on March 3, 1887. That same day, she began teaching young Helen (who was then 7) the finger alphabet.

Sullivan handed Helen a doll, then tapped out the word "doll" on Helen's hand. She repeated the word, having Helen hold the doll.

The next word Sullivan taught her young pupil was "cake." More words followed. More bad behavior followed, because Helen just wasn't getting it.

A month later, everything changed.

On a cool spring day, April 5, at a pump on the Keller family plantation, Sullivan patiently poured water on Helen's hands and tapped out the word "water." Suddenly, the clouds that had obscured Helen's understanding parted and the girl found full comprehension. Excited, she tapped out "water." She shouted with glee. As she and Sullivan walked back to the family house, Helen asked Sullivan to tap out the finger-alphabet word for everything she touched. The excitement was mutual. Helen was learning!

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