Sunday, June 27, 2010

Miracle In Alabama

Magnet # 278:  Symbols of Alabama

Material:  Wood

Purchased By:  Me

If you look closely at the image at the top of this magnet, you might be able to make out a recreation of the Helen Keller portrait that is featured on the Alabama state quarter.  Yeah, I know, it's a little fuzzy on this magnet, even in person.  Regardless, it was on this day in 1880 that a baby girl was born to the wealthy Keller family of Tuscumbia, Alabama.  Just 19 months later, Helen Keller would suffer a terrible, but short-lived, illness that would leave her deaf and blind.  All throughout history, such handicaps would have effectively been the end of a person's life, but this little girl was soon going to forever change the way the deaf and blind interacted with society.

There is no doubt that Keller was a highly intelligent child and was capable of advancements that others with her impairments could not have made.  But she was also very fortunate to be surrounded by people who loved her and could afford to give her the best treatment possible.  Even at a young age, she was able to slightly communicate with Martha Washington, a six-year-old who was the child of the Keller family cook.  And, to some degree, she was able to make her needs known to her family.  Of course, Keller later shared that she was almost like a wild animal in those days, giggling and laughing to convey her happiness while kicking, scratching, and screaming when she was upset.  Her mother searched, desperate to improve her daughter's life, and learned of a deaf-blind girl named Laura Bridgman who had received an education.  Inspired, she sent Helen with her father to Baltimore, where they met with Dr. J. Julian Chisholm, who specialized in the ear, nose, and throat.  He, in turn, referred them to Alexander Graham Bell, who was then working with deaf children.  And Bell put them in touch with the Perkins Institute for the Blind in Boston, which had educated Laura Bridgman.  It was there that the school's director brought in the woman who was to change Helen Keller's life - Anne Sullivan, a twenty-year-old who had once been blind, but through surgery had regained part of her sight.  In 1887, Sullivan arrived at the Keller family house, Ivy Green, and began to work with Keller.  For weeks, she tried to teach her student words by signing in her hands.  A month later, she broke through by signing water into one of Keller's hands as she held the other under under a stream of water.  Keller finally understood, and by the end of that day, had learned 30 more words.  By 10, she had learned to speak by feeling Sullivan's mouth while she spoke.  And she became the first deaf-blind person to receive a Bachelor of Arts degree, attending Radcliffe College with Anne Sullivan at her side.  Keller's book The Story of My Life helped inspire others with handicaps to succeed despite of them.  And she became an internationally acclaimed speaker and author, traveling all over the world.  She worked tirelessly to improve the lives of the blind.  Keller even met with every President from Grover Cleveland to Lyndon B. Johnson.   And she helped introduce the Akita dog to the United States when she visited Japan and learned of the breed, going so far as to say she would like one herself.  She was given one that later passed away from canine distemper.  The Japanese government then presented her with a second Akita.  Keller loved these animals and called them angels in fur.  She remained a companion of Anne Sullivan until she passed away in 1936 and when Keller died in 1968, her remains were place next to those of her mentor's.  It was a fitting end for the pair who had changed the way the world looked at the handicapped.

It's still possible to visit Ivy Green in Tuscumbia, Alabama the Keller family home where Helen was born and first studied with Anne Sullivan.  It's in the northern part of the state and is part of the Helen Keller Birthplace and Shrine.  The house is somewhat simple and was built in 1820, but still contains much of the furniture that belonged to the family.  Even her braille typewriter and braille books are still there.  I went to Ivy Green with my family when I was in junior high and I still remember seeing the well pump where Keller first understood what Sullivan was teaching her.  The grounds are extensive and include an International Gardens which is filled with gifts that nations from all over the world presented to Keller, along with a bronze bust of the lady herself.  The city has had quite a bit of attention for the past week, as it has held its annual Helen Keller Festival, which wraps up today.  The events include a parade, concerts, an art show, performances of The Miracle Worker, the play about Helen Keller's childhood, and many other fun activities.  It may be too late to join in this year, but you might want to keep this festival in mind for the future.  Keller may be gone, but her influence lives on and her hometown is likely to continue celebrating its most famous resident for many years to come.

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