The Story of the Anne Sullivan and Helen Keller Friendship

Many people think they know the story of Helen Keller, the girl who suffered from being blind and deaf. What many don't know is that without Anne Sullivan's patience, guidance, and friendship, Helen Keller never would have been transformed into the woman and success story she became. Keller was born completely healthy, but was robbed of her vision and hearing at just 19 months old. She had no idea how to understand the world around her and communicate her wants and needs. This is when and why her tantrums and behavior problems started and made her family desperate for help from an experienced teacher. That teacher was Anne Sullivan.

Much like Keller, Anne Sullivan contracted an eye disease when she was just five years old, leaving her blind and scared. Abandoned by her father at a young age, Sullivan was sent to live in an overcrowded, underfunded group home for much of her young adult life. Eventually, she began to capture the attention of others and, with help, underwent an eye surgery to help improve her condition. She then made leaps and bounds and was entered into the renowned Perkins Institution; where she ultimately became the best candidate to teach seven-year-old Keller, who so desperately needed guidance in her sheltered and secluded world.

All great teachers know that in order to get a challenging student to learn, you sometimes have to break away from rules and must never be limited by them. After trying formal lessons and adhering to a strict schedule with Keller, Sullivan knew it was time to shift the focus of her teaching. After all, she knew what it was like to live in the dark world that was also a silent world to Keller.

Sullivan broke into Helen's word by making it a point to be attentive to her interests and to truly understand her activities to add language and vocabulary into her realm. Sullivan did this by doing a lot of finger spelling , as well as lots of other unconventional exercises, for her to make a physical connection between an object and its identity. The key to teaching Helen was to use a firm but tender approach, much like a parent.

Much like any student would, Helen responded to Sullivan's creative approach to teaching. In just six months, Keller learned 575 words, the Braille system, and her multiplication facts! Later in her life, Sullivan was able to help Keller learn French, German, Greek, and even Latin. She even wrote an autobiography titled, The Story of My Life; and became the first deaf and blind person to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Anne Sullivan was so thrilled with Keller's successes so she continuously studied other subjects to teach Helen. Sullivan wanted to make sure Keller had numerous opportunities and her thirst for knowledge was quenched. Despite doctors' warnings; Sullivan read dozens of books that contained information she felt would be beneficial for Keller, despite the rest and care that her own impaired eyes much needed.

Helen Keller has said that the most significant day she remembered in her life is the one in which her teacher, Anne Sullivan came to her. Up to her dying day, she was filled with wonder when she considered the "immeasurable contrast between the two lives which became connected."

Later in life, when Anne Sullivan became ill, her grateful and beloved student was present at her bedside, holding her hand as she passed away. Sullivan was not just a teacher to Keller, but a role model, mentor, friend, and a mother figure; because she helped Keller grow into a mature and selfless person. Keller followed in her mentor's footsteps and became a compassionate adult who decided to work for the blind and deaf, as well as other less fortunate people.

In fact, many teachers measure their professional success not by test scores alone, but with how they have touched their students' lives in some way and have made them into a better human being. Anne Sullivan did this for Helen Keller.


Photo:, By Family member of Thaxter P. Spencer, now part of the R. Stanton Avery Special Collections, at the New England Historic Genealogical Society.