Do the Helen Keller – Learn About an Inspirational Alabamian

ivy green.jpgThere’s a song out that your kids have heard even if you haven’t. The lyrics include, “..Shush your lips…do the Helen Keller, and talk with your hips.”  The remaining lyrics aren’t – to use an old-fashioned term – ”wholesome,” even if the tune is catchy. The video has also spawned some controversy over the dancing (eyes shut, off beat). But if I could get my hands on the band that sings this song, I would first make them apologize for insulting Ms. Keller, then I would haul them up to Tuscumbia’s Ivy Green, where they would learn a thing or two about an Alabamian who accomplished more than their disco-beat minds can imagine.

During a visit Ivy Green over the summer, it occurred to me that I’ve probably never fully appreciated what Helen Keller had to overcome and what she ultimately achieved. Consider:

No Americans with Disabilities Act in those days. You were on your own with a special needs child in those days, and no IEP (Individual Educational Plan) or counselor was going to offer you suggestions or options on how to manage. How fortunate for Helen that her family had the means to provide a skilled, personal teacher like Anne Sullivan for her. What future Helen Keller is out there now, who with access to resources can unlock a fully functional, joyful life? 

A Miracle Worker. Only an elite few are gifted with the patience to work every day with children, let alone those who have already been written off as hopeless cases. Helen’s teacher, Annie Sullivan, didn’t have a pre-made lesson plan to whip out and follow with Helen; she had to improvise and even stand up to her employer, Helen’s doting parents. She forgave Helen’s naughty pranks on her – Helen famously locked Sullivan in a closet for hours – and went on to sign EVERY LETTER OF EVERY WORD OF EVERY LESSON into Helen’s hand for the duration of her education. Think about that when you are asked to read Goodnight Moon yet again.

Limited educational options. Helen was the first deaf/blind person in the U.S. to graduate college. She didn’t attend just any university, but Radcliffe, which was Harvard’s counterpart for women. She had the same entrance exams as any other student, yet she and Annie had to arrange most of their own coping strategies (you couldn’t say they received many accommodations) for Helen to complete her studies. It was unexpected and rare for a woman to attend college at all during those times, let alone a deaf/blind woman.

Personal Setbacks. During preparatory school, Helen was accused of plagiarism. She had apparently memorized a story that had been read to her as she was first learning to sign and then written portions of it as her own. This was a serious accusation and agonizing for Helen, as she was forever paranoid that she had taken something she had read and remembered it as her own original idea. Although she was found innocent of intentionally copying the story, she never wrote fiction again. It turns our her real life is more remarkable than fiction, anyway.

A cause greater than self. Helen and Annie Sullivan worked tirelessly for the American Foundation for the Blind, their means of making a living, and Helen was instrumental in having braille recognized as the world’s standard system for reading and writing for people with vision loss.  

Medical care. Helen’s blindness and deafness were  illness-induced and might have been avoided had she had the advances in medicine that we have today. Would she have stretched her intellect, developed her strong determination, or even experienced life as fully? We will never know. Many in similar circumstances would surely have given in to despair. Not Helen, her parents, or her teacher.

So there you go. Apparently the writers of the aforementioned song only know of Helen Keller as a deaf and blind historical figure with a convenient four-syllable name that suited their lyrics. These guys need to read The Story of My Life while they ride their tour bus. If there is anything that’s telling, it’s that Helen Keller’s name is still recognizeed in a Top 40 song 40 years after her death. Hopefully some kids will be spurred to find out more about her.

Make sure your own kids don’t grow up to be ignorant of Helen Keller’s life and accompplishments. Besides the lesson they receive in school,  discuss Helen with them at home , look up some of her inspiring quotes,and plan to take the short trip (2.5 hours) to Tuscumbia and Ivy Green when you have an opportunity. Helen’s life is a testament to how determination can help any individual overcome even the most difficult of circumstances.