Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Why Helen Keller Is My Hero

"Life is either a daring adventure or nothing. To keep our faces towards change and behave like free spirits in the presence of fate is strength undefeatable." -Helen Keller


I have been a witness to the struggle facing the deaf. My sister was born with a partial deafness in one ear, and close to full deafness in the other. She has worn a hearing aid for as long as I can remember. Even with the aid, her hearing was not strong enough so that she could learn to speak like most of us do; by listening and repeating. She had to be taught how to make every sound, form every vowel and consonant, one at a time. She had a fabulous teacher by the name of Mrs. Sullivan. (I am not lying; that was her name!) She worked with my sister almost every day. She spelled the letters in her hand and formed them with her voice, placing my sisters hand on her throat. It was a long and drawn out process over many years. This teacher did not come to us, so we had to go to her. My mother would walk my sister to the door, then return to the car where she and I did crosswords while my sister had her lesson.  I love doing crosswords to this day; they remind me of that time together and our small family.  When my sister was done, she would teach me what she learned while mom drove us home. I would then help my sister with her lessons. She would read to me at night for hours to practice, or I would read to her; her hand on my throat so that she could feel the words. Eventually she learned how to read lips, and passed that skill to me as well. That has come in handy at many a party!


It was a tough road for my little sister, and I was fiercely protective when we were out in the world. When I was in third grade and my sister was in second we were living in Vestal, New York and attending a school called African Road Elementary. This was a progressive, or OPEN, school with no classrooms--we had teams. The teams were O, P, E and N and each team was made up of students from all 6 grades. The idea was that the younger students would learn as much from the older students as from their teachers. In reality though, grade school students are not always the best role models. You have probably never heard of this type of school, because the format was never widely used, and is no longer in use at all. This explanation was given so that you understand how my sister and I found ourselves in the same class and in the presence of older bullies. One day I grew so tired of one particular bully who had made a habit of mimicking how my sister spoke, and making fun of the thick lenses in her glasses, that I hauled off and punched him in the face. My teacher, Mrs. Matthews, grabbed me by one arm and the boy by the other and took us to the Principal's office, my sister trailing behind. I thought for sure that I would be kicked out, disgraced,in trouble. But Mrs. Matthews told the principal that if I had not punched the boy she would have. (That's probably not exactly what she said, but it's how I like to remember it.)  How I loved her for that! He looked at me for what seemed like forever and then said "young lady, I assume that this will not happen again?" It was not really a question, but I answered "no sir". He said "well then, I certainly admire your loyalty to your sister, and I apologize to both of you for this young man's actions. You two go back to class now and let me deal with him." (Again, perhaps a child's memory.)  Whew! I was not in trouble! He was not going to call my mother! What I did was wrong and I broke the rules, but the world was now a better place for my sister, by just a little. 


As we grew up, her speech improved to the point that you could barely tell she had a hearing problem. Hearing aids grew smaller, lenses in glasses grew thinner, and her life became normal, whatever that is.

We owe so much of this to Helen Keller. She spent the first half of her life seeking knowledge and education at every level and in some of the best institutions, including Radcliffe College at Harvard University . She then devoted the second half of her life as a world famous speaker and author, advocating for people with disabilities of all types. She put a face to something that was once treated with shame. She lived each day with strength and pride. She made this world a better place for people like my sister, and not just by a little. Her example makes me regret my days of self pity and weakness. That is why the quote above is posted on my wall. It serves as a wake up call during those moments that I wallow.

Do you have a hero, dear friend?  Is there someone special that you are grateful to for making the world better?  I would love to hear!

xoxo, Anita

3 comments:

  1. I remember learing about Helen Keller as a child. She was an amazing inspiration in a time when women were supposed to be quiet and decorative.
    Marie Stopes is a big heroine of mine. x

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  2. This is a wonderful post, very inspiring, and a wonderful tribute to your sister as well as Helen Keller.
    I have so many heroes it’s hard to keep track of them all. Two modern women are prominent in my mind because of the social obstacles they have to overcome every single day and the tremendous, unshakeable courage they demonstrate in their outspoken opposition to the global industrial agriculture complex.
    One is Wangari Maathai, a Nobel Prize winner for her Pan-African Green Belt movement, among other things. The other is Vandana Shiva, a multiple award winning global food activist and ecofeminist. Both of these women have dedicated their lives to sustainable global food production, preservation of biodiversity, and improvement of living and working conditions for women.
    It’s an inspiration to me, knowing that people like them are out there, making real changes.

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Dear friends,
Thank you for taking the time to comment! ! I want this to be a space of free and open dialog, within the boundaries of respect and basic human kindness. Whether we are in agreement or not, all comments will be published so long as they meet that requirement.
xo, Anita