Anne Sullivan was a teacher who taught Helen Keller, a blind and deaf child, how to communicate and read Braille. At only 20 years of age, Sullivan showed great maturity and ingenuity in teaching Keller and worked hard with her pupil, bringing both women much acclaim. Sullivan even helped Keller write her autobiography. A gifted teacher, Anne Sullivan is best known for her work with Helen Keller, a blind and deaf child she taught the work of an educator with young children communicate.
Her parents immigrated to the United States from Ireland during the Great Famine of the 1840s. The couple had five children, but two died in their infancy. Sullivan and her two surviving siblings grew up in impoverished conditions, and struggled with health problems. At the age of five, Anne contracted an eye disease called trachoma, which severely damaged her sight.
Her mother, Alice, suffered from tuberculosis and had difficulty getting around after a serious fall. She died when Anne was eight years old. Even at an early age, Sullivan had a strong-willed personality. She sometimes clashed with her father, Thomas, who was left to raise Sullivan and her siblings after their mother’s death. Thomas—who was often abusive—eventually abandoned the family. Anne and her infirm younger brother, Jimmie, were sent to live at the Tewksbury Almshouse, a home for the poor.
Some reports say that Sullivan also had a sister who was sent to live with relatives. Tewksbury Almshouse was dirty, rundown, and overcrowded. Sullivan’s brother Jimmie died just months after they arrived there, leaving Anne alone. While at Tewksbury, Sullivan learned about schools for the blind and became determined to get an education as a means to escape poverty. She got her chance when members from a special commission visited the home.
After following the group around all day, she worked up the nerve to talk to them about sending her to a special school. Still, Sullivan faced great challenges while at Perkins. She had never been to school before and lacked social graces, which put her at odds with her peers. Humiliated by her own ignorance, Sullivan had a quick temper and liked to challenge the rules, which got her in trouble with her teachers. Sullivan did eventually settle down at the school, but she never felt like she fit in there.
She did develop close friendships with some of her teachers, including the school’s director Michael Anagnos. Chosen as the valedictorian of her class, Sullivan delivered a speech at her June 1886 graduation. She told her fellow students that “duty bids us go forth into active life. Let us go cheerfully, hopefully, and earnestly, and set ourselves to find our especial part. Anagnos helped Sullivan find a job after graduation. The Keller family had written him looking for a governess for their daughter Helen, who was blind and deaf. In March 1887, Sullivan traveled to Tuscumbia, Alabama, to work for the Keller family.
Sullivan had studied the instruction methods used with Laura Bridgman, a deaf and blind student she had known at Perkins, before going to Alabama. She wanted to help Keller make associations between words and physical objects, and worked hard with her rather stubborn and spoiled pupil. After isolating Keller from her family in order to better educate her, Sullivan began working to teach Keller how to communicate with the outside world. Thanks to Sullivan’s instruction, Keller learned nearly 600 words, most of her multiplication tables, and how to read Braille within a matter of months.
News of Sullivan’s success with Keller spread, and the Perkins school wrote a report about their progress as a team. Keller became a celebrity because of the report, meeting the likes of Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, and Mark Twain. Sullivan decided that Keller could benefit from the Perkins School’s program, and the two spent time there off-and-on throughout Keller’s adolescence. They also sought aid for Keller’s speech at the Wight-Humason School in New York City.
When Keller’s family could no longer afford to pay Sullivan or manage Helen’s school costs, a number of wealthy benefactors—including millionaire Andrew Carnegie—stepped in to help them defray their costs. Despite the physical strain on her own limited sight, Sullivan helped Keller continue her studies at Radcliffe College in 1900. She spelled the contents of class lectures into Keller’s hand, and spent hours conveying information from textbooks to her. As a result, Keller became the first deaf-blind person to graduate from college.