The once in a lifetime educator that was Anne Sullivan

The once in a lifetime educator that was Anne Sullivan

People come and go in our lives.  Some leave and are left in our memory like nothing more than a mere acquaintance.  Others become a part of our lives.  And a small percentage of the people we know throughout a lifetime leave such an impression that they become our role models or they motivate us to be something we could never imagine becoming.  These people are usually teachers.  Their words and actions have a profound influence on how students develop.  One of the greatest historical examples of how teachers have the power of transforming someone’s life is the almost lifelong relationship that existed between Helen Keller and her tutor Anne Sullivan.

The teacher that would give a student a new life

Anne Sullivan’s life was nothing short of extraordinary.  At the age of five she got trachoma, a disease that Sullivan would have to battle with until her last days.  Before she was ten she had lost all of her immediate family.  Her mother passed away from a disease and her father jumped shipped when he realized being a single parent and responsible for the upbringing of two children was an insurmountable task.  Anne and her brother Jimmie had to settle at a poor house in Tewksbury and it would only take three months for the inhumane living conditions to take the life of Jimmie.  Having been left alone in the world, Anne received a first-hand lesson in humanity by some people at Tewksbury Almshouse that would help her get several surgeries on her eyes and one of the residents informed her that schools for visually challenged students existed.  This brought forth an epiphany that would mark her life goals.  Anne Sullivan was determined to receive an education at one of those schools and make something of herself.

Her determinedness came through when she spoke out to a group that had been sent to Tewksbury to check up on living conditions there.  She waited until the time was right and expressed her desire to get an education.  That same year, 1880, she was enrolled to the Perkins Institution, one of the most recognized school for blind children.  The treatment she received from the other students and some teachers was humiliating for the first couple of years.  Her peers would often point out her lack of education and how she carried herself.  This, however, did not deter Anne Sullivan from her goal.  As a matter of fact, it made her desire to succeed academically even stronger.  So much so that she gave the Valedictory speech at graduation and challenging her newly graduated colleagues to “…find our special part.”  That same summer, with fears of what came next, Sullivan received a recommendation that would change her and another person’s life.  She had been recommended to tutor a young girl from Tuscumbia, Alabama.  The girl? Helen Keller.

As you would expect of someone who is starting out their first job, Sullivan took her cue from a similar case.  Her close friend Laura Bridgman was under her care at Perkins.  Coincidentally, Bridgman was the first the first deafblind person to learn a language.  It happened thanks to the outstanding work of Perkins’ Director, Samuel Gridley Howe.  Sullivan would take some months to study and analyze how Howe accomplished what he had and she decided if the strategy had worked for Bridgman, it would work for Helen Keller.

Anne Sullivan soon realized that Howes strategy did not apply to Helen’s education.  As a matter of fact, the strict and rigorous style of teaching proposed by Howe would prove the least effective instrument to reach Helen.

Image courtesy of Jim Sher at Flickr.com
Image courtesy of Jim Sher at Flickr.com

As time passed, Keller turned aggressive and would constantly hurt Sullivan.  For any other educator, this would have been enough to give up and look for other work.  Not for Anne Sullivan, instead of running, she became more determined.  She isolated Keller and herself from the world by moving in the Keller family’s cottage on the grounds.  This would allow Helen to concentrate solely on her studies and it would give Sullivan the chance to prove herself as an educator.  And boy did she do it.  Since Howe’s method showed no progress in Helen’s instruction she opted for a more hands on approach.  She finally broke through when she taught her young pupil how to spell and learn the meaning of water by putting Keller’s hand under the steady stream of a water pump.  From here on out Keller would become more and more intrigued with learning.  Eventually Sullivan’s student would go on to become one the most recognized if not the most recognized advocate of education for those with visual and auditory disabilities.

Anne Sullivan is a model that all teachers should look up to. She embodies the qualities the Dwyer Family Foundation highlights of a great teacher.  Thanks to her dedication, creativity, and love of her job she helped turn a rebellious child into one of the greatest educators that has ever lived.

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