Monday, April 14, 2008


Life didn't start out very promising for Anne. Her parents were simple, impoverished cooks who had escaped Ireland's Potato Famine. When she was just nine, Anne's mother died. At the tender age of five, Anne picked up a bacterial infection that robbed her of much of her eyesight. Many surgeries were undertaken to help restore her failing eyes. Most of these failed.

A lesser person truly would have given up, content to remain a ward of the state with their life dictated by the whim of others. But not Anne. Here, fate interceded for her and she ran with it. She was able to study at the well-known Perkins Institute for the Blind, eventually graduating as the class valedictorian. Inspite of her physical handicap, things began to improve for young Anne. Following a second round of surgeries, her eyesight improved somewhat.

Anne was a dedicated student and a keen seeker of knowledge. A year after her graduation she was encouraged to accept her first student. Like Anne, her student had also been stricken with childhood blindness. The young girl though was also deemed spoiled, unruly and very difficult to manage, given over to wild fits and outbursts. Fortunately Anne was a patient teacher. She was able to use sign language to teach the girl her first word - doll, and then a second word - water.

Anne's mentorship of her young charge sparked the beginnings of a relationship that was to span nearly half a century. The pair went on tour together, going to Perkins and many other schools. People were amazed at the progress her student was making under Anne's steady hand. How proud Anne must have been when the girl entered and then graduated (magna cum laude) Radcliffe College. (In subsequent years, other notable Radcliffe grads included Margaret Atwood and Benazir Bhutto.)
Anne also went on with life. She had a brief marriage to a younger man that ended in separation. She continued teaching. She lived with her student and together they continued to tour the speaking circuit.

Anne died in 1936, but her accomplishments continued to inspire. Her work was later the subject of both Broadway and the big screen. Her student also went on to inspire, as an author, an advocate for women's suffrage and workers' rights. All this might never have happened without Anne's patience, determination and caring, the hallmarks of a truly great teacher. Rather than allow her condition to control her life and to be viewed as someone who would never accomplish anything meaningful in her life, Anne chose a different path. Her one simple choice to make a difference inspired thousands to become teachers. (Including this author from a simple small-town Ontario upbringing). The Anne of this little tale (or Annie as she was affectionately known) was Anne Mansfield Sullivan. Her student was none other than Helen Keller.


jennifer of nunablog said...

Moving post. Thanks for the uplifting story.