The Miracle Worker


The Miracle Worker

The Miracle Worker

Remember the movie “The Miracle Worker”?

I always thought it was about Helen Keller. But guess what?  It’s really about her teacher Anne Sullivan. Over the years, we’ve learned a lot about Helen Keller and her incredible story. But what about Anne?

April 14, 1866…….almost 150 years ago, Anne was born in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts. While she is best known as Helen Keller’s teacher, her own life is an amazing story in itself.

Here are some of the highlights:

Anne’s parents immigrated to the United States from Ireland during the Great Famine of the 1840s.

Sullivan and her two surviving siblings grew up in impoverished conditions while also struggling with health problems. At the age of five, Anne contracted an eye disease called trachoma, which severely damaged her sight. Her mother, Alice, suffered from tuberculosis and had difficulty getting around after a serious fall. She died when Anne was eight years old.

Anne and her infirm younger brother, Jimmie, were sent to live at Tewksbury Almshouse –  a home for the poor in Massachusetts

Tewksbury Almshouse was dirty, rundown, and overcrowded. Sullivan’s brother Jimmie died just months after they arrived there, leaving Anne alone. While at Tewksbury, Sullivan learned about schools for the blind and became determined to get an education as a means to escape poverty. She got her chance when members from a special commission visited the home. After following the group around all day, she worked up the nerve to talk to them about sending her to a special school.

Sullivan left Tewksbury to attend the Perkins School for the Blind in 1880. Anne underwent surgery to help improve her limited vision. She developed close friendships with some of her teachers, including the school’s director Michael Anagnos.

Anne was chosen as the valedictorian of her class and delivered a speech at her June 1886 graduation. She told her fellow students that “duty bids us go forth into active life. Let us go cheerfully, hopefully, and earnestly, and set ourselves to find our especial part. When we have found it, willingly and faithfully perform it; for every obstacle we overcome, every success we achieve tends to bring man closer to God.”

Anagnos helped Sullivan find a job after graduation. The Keller family had written him looking for a governess for their daughter Helen, who was deaf and blind. In March 1887, Sullivan traveled to Tuscumbia, Alabama, to work for the Keller family. Sullivan had studied the instruction methods used with Laura Bridgman, a deaf and blind student she had known at Perkins, before going to Alabama.

At only 21 years of age, Sullivan showed great maturity and ingenuity in teaching Keller. She wanted to help Keller make associations between words and physical objects. After isolating Keller from her family in order to better educate her, Sullivan began working to teach Keller how to communicate with the outside world. During one lesson, she finger-spelled the word “water” on one of Keller’s hands as she ran water over her student’s other hand. Keller finally made her first major breakthrough, connecting the concept of sign language with the objects around her.

Thanks to Sullivan’s instruction, Keller learned nearly 600 words, most of her multiplication tables, and how to read Braille within a matter of months. News of Sullivan’s success with Keller spread, and the Perkins school wrote a report about their progress as a team. Keller became a celebrity because of the report, meeting the likes of Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Mark Twain.

Sullivan decided that Keller could benefit from the Perkins School’s program, and the two spent time there off-and-on throughout Keller’s adolescence. When Keller’s family could no longer afford to pay Sullivan or manage Helen’s school costs, a number of wealthy benefactors—including millionaire Andrew Carnegie—stepped in to help them defray their costs.

Despite the physical strain on her own limited sight, Sullivan helped Keller continue her studies at Radcliffe College in 1900. She spelled the contents of class lectures into Keller’s hand, and spent hours conveying information from textbooks to her. As a result, Keller became the first deaf-blind person to graduate from college.

Even after Anne married in 1905, the two women remained inseparable.  Anne later separated from her husband and she and Helen struggled to make ends meet. In 1919, Sullivan played herself in the first film version of her life in order to gain more income. Deliverance proved to be a box office failure, and she and Keller ended up touring on the vaudeville theater circuit to earn money. They shared their story of triumph with fascinated audiences for years.

By the late 1920s, Sullivan had lost most of her vision. She experienced chronic pain in her right eye, which was then removed to improve her health.

Fifty years of companionship, friendship, teaching – – all beginning as a visually impaired twenty one year old. I can only imagine the patience, love and determination embodied in Anne Sullivan.

Anne died on October 20, 1936, at her home in Forest Hills, New York. Her ashes were placed at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.

At her funeral, Bishop James E. Freeman said, “Among the great teachers of all time she occupies a commanding and conspicuous place. . . . The touch of her hand did more than illuminate the pathway of a clouded mind; it literally emancipated a soul.”

A Miracle Worker indeed.


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About Evelyn

Evelyn Hunter is a SODA with years of experiential study in Deaf Culture. She attended Gallaudet University to immerse herself in this unique deaf world while working for the University and studying sign language to hone her skills. Evelyn has served in training, relationship sales, and marketing -- always seeking to expand awareness of Deaf Culture and the unique challenges the deaf face on a daily basis. The Sign Language Company has recently established a presence on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and a website with a blog, as Evelyn coordinates the marketing and outreach efforts for the agency. Her goal is to attract new clients seeking exceptional service, while maintaining optimal relationships with clients who have selected The Sign Language Company for over 20 years.

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