Annie Sullivan Women’s History Month Honoree ~ the Merrimack Valley Connection

March is Women’s History Month. The theme for 2012 is “Women’s Education – Women’s Power.” It is traditional that certain women be honored.  Recognizing the Pioneering Leadership of Women and Their Impact on the Diverse Areas of Education – these women are on the roll of honorees:

Of course, the inclusion of Annie Sullivan brings the focus here to the Merrimack Valley. Annie Sullivan – teacher, companion and friend to Helen Keller – was sent as a young girl with serious eye problems to the Almshouse here in Tewksbury, Massachusetts. Her life and that of Helen Keller was transformed by the opportunity given her to attend and be educated at the Perkins School for the Blind. The rest – as they say – is history.

From the Women’s Month web-site:

Annie Sullivan ( 1866 – 1936)
Disability Education Architect Johanna Mansfield Sullivanmore recognizable as Annie Sullivan to millions of people who have seen The Miracle Worker, William Gibson’s play (and later a film). The film is about the education of Helen Keller that starred Anne Bancroft as Annie. But Annie’s humble beginnings certainly did not predict such accomplishment and fame. Born to poor, illiterate Irish immigrants in 1866, Annie was denied schooling and was nearly blind from an untreated eye infection. Her mother died of tuberculosis when Annie was eight, and her alcoholic father deserted Annie and her siblings two years later.

Annie was sent to the state almshouse and orphanage in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, where she spent four years, and underwent two unsuccessful eye surgeries. But her life was transformed when the state board of charities chairman, Frank Sanborn, visited Tewksbury; reportedly Annie, who was never known for either restraint or polite behavior, threw herself in front of him crying, “Mr. Sanborn, I want to go to school.” 

So, at the age of fourteen, Annie Sullivan became a student at the Perkins School for the Blind in Boston, where she learned to read and write—and from which she graduated as valedictorian of her class. While at Perkins, she had several operations that restored a significant amount of her vision. She also learned to use a form of manual alphabet that allowed her to “talk” with a friend who was both blind and deaf.

After Annie’s graduation, the director of the Perkins Institute was asked to suggest a teacher for an Alabama family whose daughter was also blind and deaf. He suggested Annie Sullivan—and thus began a near fifty year relationship that would end only with Sullivan’s death. Annie Sullivan, who had struggled so to be educated herself, took on the education of Helen Keller, an uncontrollable child trapped in a world of dark silence.

Starting with the hand-spelling of “doll,” which Sullivan had brought as a present for Helen, it took more than a month before the girl understood the relationship between object or idea and the movements of her teacher against her hand—but at that point, education set Helen Keller free.

Sullivan took Helen to the Perkins School for several visits when her pupil was ready to benefit from the resources there, and, thirteen years after Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller first met, they went to Radcliffe College—Helen as the student, Sullivan as her translator. Only Helen Keller received the diploma, but Annie Sullivan had also been educated beyond her wildest dreams.

Sullivan and Keller lived, worked, and travelled together until Annie Sullivan’s death. They lectured, appeared in vaudeville performances, and appeared in a silent film called Deliverance, which was the life story of Helen Keller. But their work turned to more serious business as they collaborated with the American Foundation for the Blind as advisors, fundraisers, and advocates for change. Both received honorary degrees from Temple University in Philadelphia.

Annie Sullivan was a pioneer in a kind of education that was in its infancy. And if a student’s gratitude is a teacher’s greatest award, then Sullivan was richly rewarded. When Keller died in 1968, thirty-two years after the passing of her teacher and friend, Keller’s ashes were placed in the Washington National Cathedral next to Annie’s.

Note: This public art piece by well-known and honored sculptor Mico Kaufman captures the moment Anne Sullivan successfully teaches Helen Keller her first word – water. The work  aptly entitled “Water” – was dedicated on June 28, 1992. It is sited adjacent to the Town Hall in the center on Main Street/Route 38 in Tewksbury, Massachusetts.