The first word that Helen Keller learned was water.
Her tutor took Helen’s hand, poured water over it, and then spelled out W-A-T-E-R in Helen’s palm. Helen made the association between the writing in her palm and the water. After this breakthrough, Helen learned 30 more words that day.
Helen Keller was an American educator, advocate for the blind and deaf and co-founder of the ACLU. Stricken by an illness at the age of 2, Keller was left blind and deaf. Beginning in 1887, Keller’s teacher, Anne Sullivan, helped her make tremendous progress with her ability to communicate, and Keller went on to college, graduating in 1904. During her lifetime, she received many honors in recognition of her accomplishments.
Loss of Sight and Hearing
Keller lost both her sight and hearing at just 19 months old. In 1882, she contracted an illness called “brain fever” by the family doctor that produced a high body temperature. The true nature of the illness remains a mystery today, though some experts believe it might have been scarlet fever or meningitis.
Within a few days after the fever broke, Keller’s mother noticed that her daughter didn’t show any reaction when the dinner bell was rung, or when a hand was waved in front of her face.
As Keller grew into childhood, she developed a limited method of communication with her companion, Martha Washington, the young daughter of the family cook. The two had created a type of sign language. By the time Keller was 7, they had invented more than 60 signs to communicate with each other.
During this time, Keller had also become very wild and unruly. She would kick and scream when angry, and giggle uncontrollably when happy. She tormented Martha and inflicted raging tantrums on her parents. Many family relatives felt she should be institutionalized.
Keller’s Teacher, Anne Sullivan
Keller worked with her teacher Anne Sullivan for 49 years, from 1887 until Sullivan’s death in 1936. In 1932, Sullivan experienced health problems and lost her eyesight completely. A young woman named Polly Thomson, who had begun working as a secretary for Keller and Sullivan in 1914, became Keller’s constant companion upon Sullivan’s death.
On March 3, 1887, Sullivan went to Keller’s home in Alabama and immediately went to work. She began by teaching six-year-old Keller finger spelling, starting with the word “doll,” to help Keller understand the gift of a doll she had brought along. Other words would follow.
At first, Keller was curious, then defiant, refusing to cooperate with Sullivan’s instruction. When Keller did cooperate, Sullivan could tell that she wasn’t making the connection between the objects and the letters spelled out in her hand. Sullivan kept working at it, forcing Keller to go through the regimen.
As Keller’s frustration grew, the tantrums increased. Finally, Sullivan demanded that she and Keller be isolated from the rest of the family for a time, so that Keller could concentrate only on Sullivan’s instruction. They moved to a cottage on the plantation.
In a dramatic struggle, Sullivan taught Keller the word “water”; she helped her make the connection between the object and the letters by taking Keller out to the water pump, and placing Keller’s hand under the spout. While Sullivan moved the lever to flush cool water over Keller’s hand, she spelled out the word w-a-t-e-r on Keller’s other hand. Keller understood and repeated the word in Sullivan’s hand. She then pounded the ground, demanding to know its “letter name.” Sullivan followed her, spelling out the word into her hand. Keller moved to other objects with Sullivan in tow. By nightfall, she had learned 30 words.