Tuesday, June 07, 2011
The Story of My life - Hellen Keller
Incredible. That’s the one word summation of this book.
It’s the autobiography of a girl who became deaf and blind - and as good as dumb too - because the two important means of learning speech, hearing and sight through which we receive input from our worlds, were lost - when she was 19 months old, but who went on to learn, with the help of her teacher Anne Sullivan, conquered her disabilities and wrote this autobiography full of vivid descriptions of her rich experiences, of her absorption of every drop of life, that inspires those of us blessed with all five senses.
It could have been a book filled with the many deprivations and hardships of the girl, evoking pity and tears in the reader. But almost all the pages are characterized, not by lamentation, but by triumph - over one hurdle after another - evoking wonder, admiration and pride in the reader.
Throughout the book - from the very beginning till the end, the authors tries to assure us that she has ‘seen’ life, just like us.
“…during the first 19 months of my life, I had caught glimpses of broad, green fields, a luminous sky, trees and flowers, which the darkness that followed, could not wholly blot out. If we have once seen, ‘the day is ours, and what the day has shown.’”
Towards the end, after she has described her rich and diverse experiences, her education, her learning, her travel and her adventures, she says,
“Even as the roots, shut in the darksome earth,
Share in the tree top’s joyance, and conceive
Of sunshine and wide air and winged things
By sympathy of nature, so do I”
“…The Bible gives me a deep comforting sense that ‘things seen are temporal and things unseen are eternal’ …”
Only once, in the end, she allows herself one paragraph to share her grief, in a brief message that carries the entire weight of a lifetime
“Sometimes…….. I sit alone and wait at life’s shut gate. Beyond there is light, and music, and sweet companionship; but I may not enter. Fate, silent, pitiless, bars the way…”
One person, who deserves equal attention and appreciation, is her teacher Anne Mansfield Sullivan, who with her patience and her commitment, helped turn Helen, who would otherwise have become a vegetable, into the human that she was.
The methods of teaching she used, to educate Helen, are indeed interesting. Helen’s education, in general, serves to help us understand the challenges that the disabled have to face, even to accomplish very simple things that we pay no attention to.
She(Anne Sullivan) took Helen to the well house where someone was drawing water. Miss Sullivan placed her hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand, she spelled into the other hand, the word water, first slowly and then rapidly.
Helen – “…I was stringing beads of different sizes in symmetrical groups…I noticed a very obvious error in the sequence and for an instant I concentrated my attention on the lesson and tried to think how I should have arranged the beads. Miss Sullivan touched my forehead and spelled with decided emphasis, ‘Think’. In a flash I knew that the word was the name of the process that was going on in my head. This was my first conscious perception of an abstract idea.
“My teacher gave me slips of cardboard on which were printed words in raised letters. I had a frame in which I could arrange the words in little sentences; but before I ever put sentences in the frame I used to make them in objects. I found the slips of paper which represented, for example, ‘doll’, ’is’, ‘on’, ‘bed’ and placed each name on its object; then I put my doll on the bed with the words is, on, bed arranged beside the doll, thus making a sentence of the words, and at the same time carrying out the idea of the sentence with the things themselves.
Miss Sullivan’s descriptions of the great round world with its burning mountains, buried cities, moving rivers of ice…she made raised maps in clay so that I could feel the mountain ridges and valleys, and follow with my fingers, the devious course of rivers.
Everything Miss Sullivan taught me she illustrated by a beautiful story or a poem.
What many children think of with dread, as a painful plodding through grammar, hard sums and harder definitions, is today one of my most precious memories.
The growth of a plant, lily furnished the text for some lessons; and also eleven tadpoles in a glass globe.
Miss Sarah Fuller, principal of Horace Mann school – employed the below method to teach her speech : she passed the girl’s hand lightly over her own face, and let her feel the position of her tongue and lips when she made a sound. And the girl learnt six elements of speech - M, P, A, S, T, I.
In reading her teacher’s lips, she was wholly dependent on her fingers: “I had to the sense of touch in catching vibrations of the throat, the movements of the mouth and the expression of the face; and often this sense was at fault. In such cases, I was forced to repeat the words or sentences, sometimes for hours, until I felt the proper ring in my own voice.”
With all her disabilities, the variety of things she learnt and the richness of her experience make a reader ask who is more disabled.
She went to various fairs and exhibitions and learnt the stories of different people and places of the world. At the Cape of Good Hope exhibit, she learnt about the process of mining diamonds.
She learnt algebra, geometry, Greek, Latin, Latin prosody. She learnt Latin grammar from a Latin scholar.
A collection of fossils unlocked the treasures of the antediluvian world for her.
She used to knit and crochet; play a game of checkers or chess with a friend, or solitaire, frolic with children, find pleasure and inspiration in museum and art stores, go to theatre and have a play described to her while it is being acted on stage.
She graduated with honours from Radcliffe College in Massachusetts in 1904.
Talking about her rowing experience, ‘I use oars with leather bands, which keep them in position in the oarlocks, and I know by the resistance of the water when the oars are evenly poised. In the same manner I can also tell when I am pulling against the current. I like to contend with wind and wave…
‘I enjoy canoeing especially on moonlit nights…’ a blind girl you may think… but she knows the moon is there. Just as she could feel the city noises and knew the difference between walking through country roads and city roads. ‘Dissonant tumult frets my spirit…when I walk in the city’…
She was surprised and delighted when she uttered her first connected sentence, ‘It is warm‘. Though she possessed the ability to speak, she could not actually speak as she had no means of learning how to speak - sight and hearing.
There is vivid imagery throughout the book. Coming from a blind and deaf person, such felicity of language is surprising. Most people with all senses functioning couldn’t have done such a good job of imagery...so detailed that its almost photographic - you can conjure the picture in your mind as you read...written with such relish and with so much feeling put into it.
“…..frolicsome streams ran through it from springs in the rocks above leaping here and tumbling there in laughing cascades wherever the rocks tried to bar their way. The opening was filled with ferns which completely covered the beds of limestone and in places hid he streams. The rest of the mountain was thickly wooded. Here were great oaks and splendid evergreens with trunks like mossy pillars, from the branches of which hung garlands of ivy and mistletoe, and persimmon trees, the odour of which pervaded every nook and corner of the wood - an illusive, fragrant something that made the heart glad. In places, the wild muscadine and scuppernong vines stretched from tree to tree, making arbours which were always full of butterflies and buzzing insects. It was delightful to lose ourselves in the green hollows of that tangled wood in the late afternoon, and to smell the cool, delicious odours that came up from the earth at the close of day…”
“……. At last the men mounted and as they say in the old songs, away went the steeds with bridles ringing and whips cracking and hounds racing ahead, and went away the champion hunters ’with hark and whoop and wild halloo……..’
“…Winter was on hill and field. The earth seemed benumbed by his icy touch, and the very spirits of the trees had withdrawn to their roots, and there, curled up in the dark, lay fast asleep…”
She had enough insight and perception to be able to make observations such as below.
“…In spite of Macaulay’s brilliancy and his admirable faculty of making the commonplace seem fresh and picturesque, his positiveness wearied me at time, and his frequent sacrifices of truth to effect kept me in a questioning attitude very unlike the attitude of reverence in which I had listened to the Demosthenes of Great Britain…”
“…but in college, there is no time to commune with one’s thoughts. One goes to college to learn, it seems, not to think...”
‘…Our enjoyment of great works of literature depends more upon the depth of our sympathy than upon our understanding…’
“Calamities…Nature wages open war against her children and under softest touch hides treacherous claws…”
“…Knowledge is power. Rather, knowledge is happiness. Because to have knowledge is to know true ends from false, and lofty things from low. To know the thoughts and deeds that have marked man’s progress is to feel the great heart throbs of humanity through the centuries; and if one does not feel in these pulsations a heavenward striving, one must indeed be deaf to the harmonies of life…”
“…I sometimes wonder if the hand is not more sensitive to the beauties of sculpture than the eye….i should think the wonderful rhythmical flow of lines and curves could be more subtly felt than seen. Be this as it may, I know that I can feel the heart throbs of the ancient Greeks in their marble gods and goddesses…”
“…It seems to me that there is in each of us a capacity to comprehend the impressions and emotions which have been experienced by mankind from the beginning. Each individual has a subconscious memory of the green earth and murmuring waters, and blindness and deafness cannot rob him of this gift from past generations. This inherited capacity is a sort of sixth sense - a soul-sense which sees, hears, feels, all in one…”
She is able to analyze and compare different literatures.
“…The German puts strength before beauty, and truth before convention, both in life and in literature. There is a vehement, sledgehammer vigour about everything that he does. When he speaks, it is not to impress others but because his heart would burst if he did not find an outlet for the thoughts that burn his soul.
Then too, there is in German literature a fine reserve which I like; but its chief glory is the recognition I find in it of the redeeming potency of woman’s self-sacrificing love. This thought pervades all German literature and is mystically expressed in Goethe’s ‘Faust’…. (Chapter 21)
Then she comments on French literature ….and others…”
I have noted some of experiences that are unique to one in her situation and also make up the humour in the book.
Her joy at the Perkins Institution for the Blind - when she began making friends with those who knew the manual alphabet, like her - her joy out of talking with other children in her own language! “Until then, I had been like a foreigner speaking through an interpreter.”
When she first experienced the sea - after her experience with the waves - she demanded “Who put salt in the water?”
One unpleasant incident in her life was the trouble she got into upon publishing a story that she had written. She was accused of plagiarism, tried in a court and convicted.
The author explains, “It is certain that I cannot always distinguish my own thoughts from those I read, because what I read becomes the very substance and texture of my mind. Consequently, in nearly all that I write, I produce something which very much resembles the crazy patchwork I used to make when I first learned to sew… My compositions are made up of crude notions of my own, inlaid with the brighter thoughts and riper opinions of the authors I have read.”
This situation of the author helps us understand how our sense of perception - through which we encounter personal experiences that make us who we are, that make our thoughts, ideas and feelings – is far more important than all the knowledge we gain through reading books, our schooling and university.
Very often we do not think much of our personal experiences and our stories but place a high value on what we gain by reading, on scholarship and on learning.
The author's problem - her only means of perceiving and knowing being books, that makes her incapable of originality in expression and the ensuing result that almost everything she writes has to be plagiarism in some degree, though it is no fault of hers – makes us appreciate better than ever before, how our direct perception and experience are more valuable than all the knowledge of the world gained through great books and authors.
‘There is no way to become original, except to be born so”, says Stevenson, implying that most of us are plagiarists. But the conditions of those like the author, who have no chance at all of being original, help us appreciate how fortunate we are.
As you read about her struggle to get into college and her difficulties in mathematics, algebra, geometry and arithmetic, - interpreting signs, symbols etc., and the system's unforgiving regulations/rules that will not relent just because a student is disabled, you can’t help noticing the ludicrousness of the system. The education system’s flaws loom large before reader.
I will end this post with one line that should inspire all of us to live more of life.
Recalling her visit North, where she ambled in the woods or some refreshing surrounding as that, she says, ‘I lived myself into all things. I was never still a moment; my life was as full of motion as those little insects that crowd a whole existence into one brief day…’