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Evening star. [volume] (Washington, D.C.) 1854-1972, April 08, 1906, Image 35

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Persistent link: https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn83045462/1906-04-08/ed-1/seq-35/

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A Day With Helen Keller
By JOSEPH EDGAR CHAMBERLIN
SOMETIMES we dream, or like to imagine,
that we are something different from what
we are. By a dismal freak of fancy we
conceive ourselves, in such a dream, to be
black instead of white; or we may see our
selves as a Syrian or Greek or Armenian immigrant
just landed at New York, without a word of English,
and strange to every thought and impulse of Ameri
can life. In every such fancied situation we can at
least think what we might think or do.
But no one of us can imagine what he would do,
or think, or even feel, if he was a being without
sight, or hearing, or speech. Our thoughts trans
late themselves into terms of seeing and hearing.
What we have seen or heard, these things we pile
up in our minds until we have what we call a life
to look back upon, and out of which to body pictured
things of the future for ourselves and others.
Conceive yourself, if you can, getting up some
morning in a world which is totally dark, totally
silent. You sit on the edge of a bed. You feel it.
Something is under your feet that is hard. But
what is beyond, what is above, what is about you?
You cannot say which way you will go?there is no
way.
This is the situation of one of the most habitually
cheerful, and one of the cleverest and brightest of
human beings: Helen Keller. Day after day I
have seen this girl start out on her daily life, and
have tried to put myself in her place as she stood
before me with her habitual sweet smile on her
face?and have never been able to do so. I only
know that she images such a world as 1 image; but
she does it through others' eyes, through others'
ears; and just how she does it no one can tell
Helen's inward mental world is one in which
others' eyes and ears have served her; but when
she confronts the physical outside world only her
feet and her fingers can be of use to her So she
begins with the spot where she is, and feels her way
to the place where she wants to go. This involves,
as a general thing, following around the outside of
the room.
She is not good at short cuts, though that other
deaf-blind person, Tommy Stringer, apparently pos
sesses an absolute sense of direction that enables
him to run like a shot across a room, a door yard,
or the open space of a barn. Helen seems to arrive
at a sense of direction only by reasoning out the
relation in space of one known object to another.
She follows around the side of the room she knows
best of all, locating herself by well-remembered ob
jects on the walls and shelves.
No one comes in blither mood to the table than
Helen Keller. Her little helplessnesses there may
trouble her inwardly; but she good-naturedly puts
them aside as things not worthy of any show of
attention from herself or others, thereby uncon
sciously rebuking the form of egotism by which we
constantly ask the pardon of others for our little
awkwardnesses and blunders.
At the Table
CHE thinks of the table as a place where everybody
^ is having a good time, and seeks to join in this
good timfe at once. Of course the person next her,
who is presumably her teacher (once Annie M. Sul
livan, now Mrs. John Albert Macy), or some other
friend who communicates with her in the sign
language for the deaf made upon her hand, where
she feels the positions of the fingers, must act as her
ears for what is said; and her own words are in her
half-chanted, peculiarly uttered speech. Of course,
she does not know when others are speaking, and
depends on the fact being signified to her by her
neighbor. She waits with a smile of sweet patience
until others are silent. Sometimes, in merry com
panies, it is a long time before Helen gets the right
of way; and when she speaks, what she says is
always well worth listening to, and generally starts
the table off on another tack with its suggestion.
Yet it is an odd thing that no one's talk is less
introspective, less egotistic, less of the talker, than
Helen Keller's. She is plainly thinking herself into
the people around her. What they have been say
ing and doing, what they are going to do,
what their ideas are about this, that or the
other thing?this is her ordinary theme.
She is fond of relating a story, or repeat
ing a witticism or clever thought that she
has read. I have never seen a person who
is so invariably pleased by other people's
jokes as Helen Keller.
Helen has lived more in the world of
intellect, or of communicated mental im
pressions, than in the world of sense. She
lias been a scholar most of her life so far,
and, even more than other attentive and
diligent students, has spent much time in
the reflected inner world of ideas. But she is
no sooner up in the morning than her fingers,
her nostrils, and her perception of vibra
tions begin to open to the world of sense.
She seeks the veranda, her every-day
place of promenade, or if some one will
conduct her (she never ventures off the veranda
alone), the lawn or the field. She touches things,
inhales, tossesJier head to feel the wind the better
in her hair o{| upon her face, all with as keen a
sense of enjoyment as that of any seeing person
who revels in a beloved landscape.
She handles the branches of trees and shrubs, and
particularly flowers, if she can get at them. Within
the range of a somewhat limited botanical acquaint
ance, she distinguishes the species one from another.
She delights in getting hold of living things in this
little morning excursion, laughing at the discovery
of an insect on a flower.
She has a way of feeling for sounds. She spoke
once of "feeling the faint noise of a fly's wings."
She said at another time: "I felt a soft sound ap
proaching (on the veranda), and I knew the baby
was coming." On the porch one morning?the
house was a mile from the railroad, a lake lying be
tween?she said to me: ''The eight-o'clock train
is going through."?"How do you know?"?"I
smell the smoke." I smelled it then myself; but
had not noticed it before. It is not that the senses
which Helen possesses are keener than ours?it is
simply that, having no others, she gives these closer
heed.
Recognition by Touch
'I'll LS reminds me that, although she recognizes a
friend instantly by the shaking of hands, even in
the midst of a large crowd, she can easily be deceived
by a false and unwonted manner on the part of the
person she knows. Since she does not see nor hear,
she depends on the personal characteristics, in
movement, in the way of presenting or withdraw
ing a hand, in its special quality of steadiness or
tremor, of slowness and lethargy, or quickness and
nervousness, all of which we totally overlook unless
they are of a marked character. There is no miracle
of subtle skill about her perception?it is simply
the exercise of the faculties she possesses.
When Helen goes to work, she works. As her
face has nothing to do but express her feelings, it
continually wears, as she studies, a look of patient
and well-contented concentration. When she writes
on the type-writer, or on the "Braille" machine?
the little apparatus which pricks the points used
in the point-writing of the blind?the expression
on her face continually changes, reflecting the
thoughts that are passing through her mind.
She has the fault of tense concentration?the lia
bility to stick obstinately to an error that she has
committed. A blunder, made in the course of
close study, has to be educated out of her head by as
careful a process as the correct thing is educated in.
Ever since her case became well-known to the
When She Confronts the
Physical. Only Her Fin
gers Can be of Use to Her.
7
public, Helen has been visited by a great many
more people than have really had a right to see her.
To some of these people it has been necessary to re
fuse her. Nothing else would have been possible.
But her natural tendency is to welcome all, from
pure friendliness and innate courtesy.
Her happiest moments all day are spent in human
intercourse. As she places her fingers to the lips
of a visitor, to feel the positions into which the vocal
organs are put, and thus to "hear" the words, it is
plain that her expectation is fixed, not upon this
process, but upon the thoughts that she has reason
to anticipate. And as the sentences shape them
selves she has a little trick of making quick starts
of pleased surprise.
It is exactly the same when the words are read
into her hands by those who employ with her the
finger language of the deaf. Several people have
learned to use this language with her with great
rapidity. But she never uses it herself, except
when she is alone and meditating, and is formulat
ing ideas by the aid of words. Her answers to the
shorthand of the fingers, as well as to the spoken
words that she follows with her fingers upon the
lips, are always vocal?in her half-singing, some
what hollow, crooning voice which she herself has
never heard.
Her greatest, wildest pleasure is swimming. Is
it because the water, coming so close to her, infold
ing her all about, shutting out the things that other
people see, dulling the things they hear, pressing
upon her sense of touch just as it does upon the
senses of all other people, gives her a feeling of pos
session of the material world from which she is de
barred in the open air, and in the hollow houses
that are strange and only half known to her? I do
not know that this has ever been her conscious
thought; but perhaps she feels it. nevertheless.
She has never been inclined to discuss her own
psychology.
I shall not forget the day when a woman who
believes in telepathy, and the Inward Eye, and all
such occult notions, came to see Helen This
woman had long been seeking the opportunity, and
at last fate placed it in her hands. She had a the
ory to prove. She asked Helen a thousand ques
tions; she tried all kinds of telepathic experiments;
she had the people who were present concentrate
their thought and will-power on influencing Helen
to do things?and absolutely nothing happened.
Helen's courteous, puzzled desire to do what the
woman wanted of her, and her innocent attempts
to comprehend what it was all about, were delic
iously, pathetically absurd.
There is not the first beginning of anything occult
in the operations of her mind, though not all of its
operations are as yet scientifically explained.
All the "second sight" she has is the direct
and natural product of a great deal of careful,
well-organized, concentration of mind.
Delight in Reading
IJELEN'S most beautiful moments, both as
they seem to affect her own state and as
they impress her friends, are the half-hours?
hours sometimes?at the end of the day, that
she passes reading her books, not for the pur
pose of study, but of inward delight.
A considerable library of books has been
put into the raised letters, just for her. That
is to say, the interest of certain men of wealth
and generosity in her case has led them to
appropriate the large sum of money which it
takes to put a considerable number of books
into the raised letter; but all blind people
get the benefit of these publications. When,
upon completion just for her, the books take
their way to her happy hands, they also go
to the libraries of the blind institutions. Thus
the fame of her case has resulted in a vast
addition to the pleasures and the knowledge
of the blind.
As the raised letters intended to be read by
the blind are large and embossed,and imprinted
upon one side of the paper only, a small book in
ordinary print makes a large book in raised letters.
Helen's library looks like a collection of big scrap
books. It takes two or three of these to hold "The
Autocrat of the Breakfast Table." Of this book
Helen is especially and unwearyingly fond. When she
reads it her face wears an expression that it never
wears at any other time. Sne is always expecting
something funny, and when the funny thing comes
her half-suppressed laugh always comes too. She has
read the book so many times that she knows it
almost by heart, and one who watches her can see
the Autocrat's witty sayings dawning on her face
sometime before she gets to them, as her fingers
move with startling rapidity along the lines.
In the summer evening she sits on the veranda,
with her big book spread in her lap, reading as the
shadows gather, reading on after darkness has
fallen?it is all one to her?and smiling, or knitting
her brows, or gravely shaking her head, as the
images that enter her mind through the tips of her

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