Helen Keller, Author and Social Activist: Undefeated by Adversity (Part 1 of 2)

Study Material for January Elementary School Division Meetings.

Photo: iStockphoto / Onfokus.

Translated from the March 1, 2015, issue of Boys and Girls Hope News, the Soka Gakkai’s monthly newspaper for the elementary school division.

Congratulations to all those who will graduate from elementary school [in March]. You have worked very hard these past six years. Together with your family, I would like to offer a big round of applause to all of you who have grown so remarkably.

Please do not forget to be grateful to your teachers, who supported and helped you through your elementary school years.

I still have vivid memories of my elementary school teachers. They helped me discover the joy of learning. They taught me how vast the world is, the importance of having a dream, and the true value of sincerity and making efforts. Today, let’s learn about the famous author and social activist Helen Keller (1880–1968), and the encounter she had with her great teacher, Anne Sullivan (1866–1936), who encouraged and fostered her potential.


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I’d like to ask you to cover your eyes with your hands. You probably cannot see anything. Now, cover your ears with your hands so it’s difficult for you to hear. Lastly, try to ask your father or mother for something without talking. Were they able to understand you? It is quite challenging, isn’t it?

Helen was unable to see, hear or speak when she was a child. Yet in spite of her disabilities, she was a woman who lived a positive and cheerful life.

Helen was born in the United States in June 1880. But during the winter when she was 19 months old, she suddenly came down with a severe fever that continued for several days. Her father and mother nursed her as best they could, hoping for her recovery. Their prayers were answered when Helen’s fever eventually went down.

However, when her parents tried talking to her, she didn’t respond. Helen’s illness had left her unable to see or hear. She even forgot how to use her voice.

Gradually, she was able to communicate her feelings by using gestures, such as shaking her head. But when people couldn’t understand her or something upset her, she cried and screamed, and took her frustration out on them. Helen’s parents, who were doing everything they could to help their daughter, were then introduced to a young woman named Anne Sullivan. She had just graduated from school with highest honors.

Anne lost her mother when she was 8 years old. She and her younger brother lived with their father, who was an alcoholic and unemployed. They were very poor. Anne battled blindness [that ended in a successful operation that partially restored her vision].

Those who live undefeated by their hardships are able to truly understand the suffering and sadness of others. It makes them kind and compassionate.

Anne became the tutor of the 7-year-old, who eventually came to trust her. Anne believed in her potential and taught her with great patience. Helen learned fingerspelling, which enabled her to spell out words with her fingers. Anne taught this by shaping letters on Helen’s palm. At first, no matter how many times Anne tried to teach her, Helen was unable to grasp the idea
that everything had a name.

Helen couldn’t make the distinction between a cup and the water in it. One day, Anne Sullivan pumped water from the well in the yard, and had Helen hold a cup with one hand, placing it underneath the waterspout. Water overflowed from the cup, gushing over Helen’s hand.

Anne took Helen’s other hand and spelled out the word “water,” over and over again. Suddenly, Helen made the connection. She realized that the cool liquid flowing over her hand had a name: it was called “water.”

Helen then understood the meaning of words such as “father,” “mother,” “sister” and “teacher,” and learned many words quickly. She began to see and hear with her mind. The light of learning began to illuminate her heart.

To be continued in an upcoming issue.


(p. 9)

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