Anne Sullivan: Creating a Very Special Education
It's hard to think of a more devoted teacher than Anne Sullivan, the woman who took a profoundly impaired Helen Keller from a near-feral state to graduation from Radcliffe College. Sullivan herself had endured a childhood of constant hardships: Her Irish immigrant parents were poor, her sometimes abusive father was an alcoholic, and her mother died of tuberculosis in 1874, when Anne was nine. Relatives placed Anne and her younger brother in the Tewksbury Almshouse, where her brother also died of TB.
Beset by eye diseases that caused her to endure numerous operations, she entered a school for the blind and graduated as valedictorian in 1886. After recovering some of her sight, Sullivan took on the daunting task of teaching a child unable to see, hear, or speak. Through innovation and pluck, plus some luck (the child was naturally brilliant), she was able to teach through a form of sign language she "wrote" onto her student's palm, enabling Keller to make use of her extraordinary abilities.
After Keller graduated from college in 1904, Sullivan lived and traveled widely with her increasingly famous charge. In 1935, she lost her sight completely, and she died in October of the next year. Remarkable as she was as a tutor, Anne Sullivan was most important as a symbol: Once the world became aware of Helen Keller's talents, no one could ever again doubt the value of educating children with disabilities.
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