Watch Helen Keller & Teacher Annie Sullivan Demonstrate How Helen Learned to Speak (1930)

Know­ing the trans­for­ma­tive effect an inspired teacher can have on an “unreach­able” stu­dent, one can only hope that geog­ra­phy and luck will con­spire to bring the two togeth­er at an ear­ly point in the child’s devel­op­ment.

Helen Keller, author, activist, and poster girl for sur­mount­ing near-impos­si­ble odds, cer­tain­ly lucked out in the teacher depart­ment. Ren­dered deaf and blind by a fever con­tract­ed at 19 months, Keller earned a rep­u­ta­tion as a holy ter­ror in a fam­i­ly ill-equipped to under­stand what her wild rages might sig­ni­fy.

Her well-con­nect­ed par­ents con­sult­ed var­i­ous experts, includ­ing soon-to-be-friend, inven­tor Alexan­der Gra­ham Bell, a trail that ulti­mate­ly led to the Perkins School for the Blind and the 20-year-old Annie Sul­li­van.

With­in a few short months of her arrival at the Keller fam­i­ly home, Sul­li­van led the near­ly-sev­en-year-old Keller to her famous break­through at the water pump.

In a more con­ven­tion­al arrange­ment, the stu­dent would even­tu­al­ly leave her teacher for fur­ther edu­ca­tion­al pur­suits, but Keller depend­ed on Sul­li­van to trans­late oth­er teach­ers’ lec­tures and class­room inter­ac­tions. Sul­li­van accom­pa­nied her to Perkins School for the Blind, the Wright-Huma­son School for the Deaf, the Cam­bridge School for Young Ladies, and final­ly Rad­cliffe Col­lege, where Keller earned her BA.

The unusu­al bound­aries of their teacher-stu­dent bond meant Keller lived with Sul­li­van and her hus­band in their For­est Hills home, a move that has­tened the marriage’s unof­fi­cial but per­ma­nent end, accord­ing to Sullivan’s biog­ra­ph­er, Kim Nielsen. It like­ly thwart­ed Keller’s sin­gle attempt at romance, with her tem­po­rary sec­re­tary, writer Peter Fagan, too.

For bet­ter and worse, their lives were for­ev­er entwined, each made more extra­or­di­nary by the pres­ence of the oth­er.

Their appear­ance in the 1930 Vita­phone news­reel, above, high­lights the manda­to­ry phys­i­cal close­ness they shared, as they demon­strate the process by which Keller learned to speak. Hav­ing learned to com­mu­ni­cate via let­ters Sul­li­van fin­ger spelled into her palm, Keller placed her fin­gers against Sullivan’s lips, throat and nose, to feel­ing the vibra­tions made when these famil­iar let­ters were spo­ken aloud.

Sul­li­van died six years after the news­reel was filmed, at which point, Pol­ly Thom­son, orig­i­nal­ly engaged as the ladies’ house­keep­er, took over, serv­ing as Keller’s inter­preter and trav­el­ing com­pan­ion for the next twen­ty years.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Helen Keller Had Impec­ca­ble Hand­writ­ing: See a Col­lec­tion of Her Child­hood Let­ters

Helen Keller Speaks About Her Great­est Regret — Nev­er Mas­ter­ing Speech

Mark Twain & Helen Keller’s Spe­cial Friend­ship: He Treat­ed Me Not as a Freak, But as a Per­son Deal­ing with Great Dif­fi­cul­ties

“A Glo­ri­ous Hour”: Helen Keller Describes The Ecsta­sy of Feel­ing Beethoven’s Ninth Played on the Radio (1924)

Ayun Hal­l­i­day is an author, illus­tra­tor, the­ater mak­er and Chief Pri­ma­tol­o­gist of the East Vil­lage Inky zine.  Her play Zam­boni Godot is open­ing in New York City in March 2017. Fol­low her @AyunHalliday.

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