Anne Sullivan Macy
Helen Keller’s “Teacher”
Anne Mansfield Sullivan was an American educator who is best known as the successful teacher and faithful companion of Helen Keller. Besides this, she championed the cause of the blind and did much to promote the American Foundation for the blind. Anne was born in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts to Thomas and Alice Cloesy Sullivan. Alice Sullivan died of tuberculosis, leaving eight year old Annie at home with her mean-tempered father. The two other surviving children of the Sullivan household were taken in by relatives. Eventually, Annie was taken from her father and transferred to Tewksbury, the state poorhouse.
Anne had contracted trachoma at an early age and her sight continued to weaken throughout her youth. When she was in Tewksbury, a group from the State Board of Charities visited the poorhouse and they met Anne. She asked to go to school and on October 7, 1880 she entered Perkins School for the Blind. Anne had a hard time at school, constantly trying to overcome her past. She tended to be arrogant and defiant, attitudes born of shame and feeling of social inferiority. Gradually several teachers took an interest in her and began to cultivate her sharp mind and as they tried to understand the reasoning behind her hostilities and sharp tongue. After several operations her vision was improved. With the improvement of her vision along with the encouragement of these dedicated teachers, her learning progressed at a rapid pace. Soon she was given the task of acting as a guide for other children.
One of Annie’s most useful accomplishments at Perkins was learning the manual alphabet. She did this in order to talk to Laura Bridgman, the first deaf-blind child to be educated in the United States, who had been taught the manual alphabet in order to communicate. This skill was to serve her well in later years. Annie graduated from high school as valedictorian from Perkins in 1886.
When Michael Anagnos, the director of Perkins, was looking for a teacher to send to work with Helen Keller, a young deaf-blind girl from Alabama, Anne was his choice. In March, 1887, at the age of 21, Anne Sullivan moved to Tuscumbia, Alabama to take charge of the young Keller. Helen was to forever call this day “The most important day of my life”. From that fateful day, the Anne and Helen were inseparable until Anne’s death in 1936.
Within two weeks after her arrival, Anne, with a mixture of love and discipline, was able to establish her authority over the undisciplined Helen. Miss Sullivan was then able to proceed in teaching Helen. She reached Helen’s mind through the sense of touch, using the manual alphabet to spell words into the girl’s hand. She began by spelling d-o-l-l into Helen’s hand, hoping to teach her to connect object with letters. While Helen quickly learned to make the letters correctly, she didn’t realize she was spelling a word or that words existed. Therefore, she learned to spell many words in an uncomprehending way.
But soon after they began, Helen discovered the correlation between words and objects. Anne used practical situations to show her this connection. The first time Helen made that connection was when “Teacher”, which is what Helen always called Anne, took her outside to the water pump. Anne started to draw water and put Helen’s hand under the spout. As the cool water flowed over one hand, she spelled the word “w-a-t-e-r” manually into the other hand. Suddenly the signals had meaning in Helen’s mind. It was here that Helen learned that everything had a name and that the manual alphabet was the key to everything she wanted to know.
As Helen progressed and became the darling of the media, Anne’s eyes continued to worsen again. She had several more operations to preserve her remaining vision, that met with success. In 1900 Helen entered Radcliffe College with Anne at her side as interpreter.
For the next 26 years, Anne’s life with Helen was a whirlwind of activity with travel, lectures, and meetings. After graduating from Radcliffe, Helen began writing “The Story of My Life. While writing, they were suggested to have John Albert Macy edit the book. He began to join in typical household events and he and Anne fell in love and were married in 1905. Anne, Helen, and John became a family until 1913 when John left Anne to sail to Europe. By the end of 1914, Anne could see the marriage was over and she added Polly Thompson to the household as housekeeper and secretary. Until the end of her life Anne stayed loyal to John and they never divorced. John Albert Macy died in 1932.
In 1927, Nella Braddy was commissioned to write Anne’s biography. Annie told Nella of her childhood and her ordeal at the Tewksbury poorhouse, something she’d kept from Helen for a long time. This biography of Anne Sullivan Macy was published in 1933. In 1932, Temple University conferred an honorary degree on Anne and Helen spoke at the ceremony of how Anne had led her into the world of the hearing and seeing. Anne was embarrassed by the praise, but full of pride in her pupil.
On October 20, 1936, at the age of 70, Anne Sullivan Macy died in Forest Hills, New York. In June of 1960, a fountain was dedicated at Radcliffe College in memory of Anne. At the dedication Helen said one word, “water”.