Home > Blog > History is Lit: The Power…

History is Lit: The Power of a Teacher

CBC’s new History is Lit series will explore literary history, book lore, ancient storytelling, and any place where stories and yesteryear meet.

Helen Keller is one of my heroes. When I was introduced to her life, at a young age, I identified with her stubbornness and temper. Seeing how she used her willfulness to better herself and become a great lecturer, author, and activist; showed me a new way. However, none of this would have been possible without Ms. Sullivan. Anne Sullivan was the teacher who persevered, who had the understanding and ingenuity to effectively communicate with young Helen and show her a way into the world—one that worked for Helen. Although Ms. Sullivan might have had an advantage, having quite a bit in common with Helen and her headstrong personality.

Anne Sullivan was born in 1866 in Massachusetts and grew up impoverished and sickly. After partially losing her eyesight at the age of five, she soon became orphaned—even losing her siblings. After ending up at Tewksbury Almshouse (a home for the poor), she asked a visiting special commission to be sent to a school for the blind, seeing education as a way out of poverty. Her bold ask paid off, and in 1880 Sullivan was sent to Perkins School for the Blind and underwent surgery to improve her eyesight. Her time at Perkins wasn’t easy—she had never been formally educated and lacked social finesse—but her life at school eventually improved, resulting in academic excellence and even some friendships with her teachers. One of them, Michael Anagnos, the school’s director, recommended Sullivan for the position of governess to the deaf and blind child of the Keller family in Alabama.  Before heading to this life-changing post, Sullivan learned how Laura Bridgman, a friend who was blind and deaf, had been taught at Perkins. 

Teacher Anne Sullivan (right) with Helen Keller (left) in 1899. Photo by Alexander Graham Bell.

Ms. Sullivan began teaching Hellen Keller on March 3, 1887. She started with a rigid lesson plan, but soon found that 7-year-old Helen couldn’t be reached in that way, so Ms. Sullivan adapted. Her innovative teaching style reached her pupil where she was, following Helen’s likes and interests, meeting Helen in her world, and finally being able to bring her pupil to the wider social community (famously, spelling “w-a-t-e-r” in Helen’s palm after feeling the water from a pump). From this moment on, Ms. Sullivan became the constant companion to Ms. Keller and assisted her in graduating college, in becoming a public speaker, a writer, and an advocate for the disabled as well as a fighter for racial, sexual, and social equality. 

Anne Sullivan passed away in 1936, her ashes were sent to rest at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. As Bishop James E. Freeman said at her funeral, Ms. Sullivan was “among the great teachers of all time.” I echo that sentiment. Her hard, majestic, and well-lived life leaves us with many lessons. One of which, in her own words, charges us and empowers us to “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.”* 

Further Reading.

Annie Sullivan and the Trials of Helen Keller (The Center for Cartoon Studies Presents), written and illustrated by Joseph Lambert (Little, Brown BYR)

Helen Keller (Little People, BIG DREAMS), by Maria Isabel Sanchez Vegara (Quarto) – Coming October 2022!

DK Biography: Helen Keller, by Leslie Garrett (DK)

The Miracle Worker (1962), directed by Arthur Penn. Starring Anne Bancroft, Patty Duke, Victor Jory.

Happy readings!

CBC’s resident history and yesteryear explorer, Laura Peraza, takes you back in time. Check out other series on our blog and our Reader Resources for more books and materials.

* From her valedictorian speech upon graduating from Perkins.

Back to Top