Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Story of My Life by Helen Keller

Last year, I read every book on Trixie's required reading list for school, and this was one of them. I think most people growing up in the States over the last half-century or so have more than a passing familiarity with Helen Keller’s life, how an illness around the age of 19 months resulted in blindness and deafness, how Anne Sullivan came into her life and provided “light” and “sound” by teaching Helen from her fingertips.

It’s a great story the first couple of times you hear it, but due to over-exposure, I dreaded having to read it. So I planned to plod through the book the best I could and, like a good homeschool mom, encourage my daughter, who hadn't yet heard of this paragon of the human spirit, to enjoy the book herself. I never actually planned to glean something for myself from it, but I did.

The Story of My Life shares vignettes of Helen Keller's growing up (she’s born in ‘Bama, y’all!), the people she met (among whom are Alexander Graham Bell, Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt), her dreams (to graduate from Harvard) and her unique writing voice. Her accomplishments are shared in a humble way that gives a lot of credit to her faithful teacher, Anne Sullivan.

Here are some things I didn't know: (1) Helen Keller enjoyed languages of all kinds and excelled in learning them; (2) Math was her worst subject; (3) There apparently was a controversy about the closeness of Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller, and Helen's parents felt that Sullivan and Keller should take a break from one another. (Apparently, the break didn't last very long, and the controversy amounted to nothing.) A lot that can be said about Keller and her many accomplishments, and I can’t mention them all here. But DO read the book for yourself; it’s definitely worth it! (And it’s pretty short, to boot.)

Experiencing her story once again, I'm harshly confronted by my own slothfulness. Keller accomplished so many things against overwhelming odds. For example, my edition includes some of Keller’s letters. Handwritten!! Her handwriting would make you weep! Did I mention that she’s blind? Oh, agony! Cover me in sackcloth and make me a bed of ashes!

And her talent for linguistics! I suppose that without sight and sound she spent her entire life decoding her surroundings. (Hey--just a thought--too bad no one thought about employing her as a code-breaker during World War I or something.)

One thing I found interesting, though, was her inability to recall dates and timelines accurately regarding the events of her life. She could recall words and stories with unbelievable accuracy, but not events as they happened in her life. (Do you suppose that without light and sound one has greater difficulty in cataloguing the passage of dates and times?)

According to Keller, after meeting poet John Greenleaf Whittier, he agreed to give her his autograph; however, the inscription is actually addressed to Anne Sullivan. It states, “With great admiration of thy noble work in releasing from bondage the mind of thy dear pupil, I am truly thy friend, John G. Whittier.”

Anecdote after anecdote from her account indicates that people were kind and wanted to meet Helen. To be honest, reading between the lines a bit, it almost seemed that Helen Keller was regarded by those who met her as part celebrity, part marvel. So, I’m sure the people who met her were kind, but I think some viewed her as a bit of a curiosity. So, was she told that people wanted to meet her? Or is this what she genuinely thought because her loss of senses limited her perspective? [Keep in mind, that Keller wrote this book while in college, so she hadn’t yet become famous as an activist; she was only well-known as a deaf-blind girl with a great mind.]

Personally, in my experience with the deaf, I found that a loss of hearing, combined with selfishness in the fallen world, supplies handicapped people with a unique (sometimes false) point of view. For example, Alexander Graham Bell is regarded by the deaf community as someone who deliberately hurt all deaf people by cutting them off from the hearing world with the invention of the telephone. To the contrary, however, most historians within the hearing community agree that Alexander Graham Bell actually hoped to find a way for the deaf to “hear” when he accidentally invented the telephone. He truly hoped that one of his inventions would allow the deaf to interact more freely in the hearing world. (In a round-about way, he did accomplish just that. Today, generations after inventing the telephone, texting rivals “speaking” on cell phones. Perhaps the deaf will now be more kind in how they remember the one of the fathers of modern communication.)

Which leads me to my final thought. Handicaps come in different forms. In many ways, Helen Keller’s life points to the fact that anyone with guts and spirit can accomplish big things, against the odds. But sometimes, we neglect to remember in these days of equal opportunity, that a handicap does, well, leave us crippled. Even though God gave our bodies and minds the ability to adapt and compensate for its missing parts, we don’t experience the world fully in the way our Creator intended.

Living on this earth provides each of us an “opportunity” to become handicapped in some way. I’m glaringly aware of my own handicaps, but this book made me ask the question, “How is my perspective altered by my own crippling handicaps?”

So, are you aware of your own handicaps? Do you think they’ve shaded your point-of-view? How do you think your other “senses” have compensated for this loss in your life?