The 21-year-old Anne Sullivan came to Tuscumbia, Alabama on March 3, 1887. From the moment she arrived she began to sign words into Helen's hand, trying to help her understand the idea that everything has a name.
This period of Helen Keller's life is best known to people because of the film The Miracle Worker. The film correctly depicted Helen as an unruly, spoiled, but very bright child who tyrannized the household with her temper tantrums.
Anne saw the need to discipline, but not crush, the spirit of her young charge. As a result, within a week of her arrival, Anne had gained permission to remove Helen from the main house and live alone with her in the nearby cottage where she could teach Helen obedience.
Anne's work with Helen is documented in her correspondence with Sophia Hopkins, a wealthy New Englander who had taken a motherly interest in Anne when she was a pupil at Perkins. Anne wrote the following to Hopkins:
As I began to teach her, I was beset by many difficulties. She wouldn't yield a point without contesting it to the bitter end. I couldn't coax her or compromise with her. To get her to do the simplest thing, such as combing her hair or washing her hands or buttoning her boots, it was necessary to use force, and, of course, a distressing scene followed...I saw clearly that it was useless to try to teach her language or anything else until she learned to obey me. I have thought about it a great deal, and the more I think, the more certain I am that obedience is the gateway through which knowledge, yes, and love, too, enter the mind of the child.
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One month later, on April 5, 1887, she succeeded in communicating the meaning of words. That night, for the first time, Helen climbed into bed with Anne, who later said "I thought my heart would burst, it was so full of joy." Anne wrote the following to her friend in Boston:
In a previous letter I think I wrote you that "mug" and "milk" had given Helen more trouble than all the rest. She confused the nouns with the verb "drink." She didn't know the word for "drink," but went through the pantomime of drinking whenever she spelled "mug" or "milk." This morning, while she was washing, she wanted to know the name for "water." When she wants to know the name of anything, she points to it and pats my hand. I spelled "w-a-t-e-r" and thought no more about it until after breakfast. Then it occurred to me that with the help of this new word I might succeed in straightening out the "milk-mug" difficulty. We went out to the pump-house, and I made Helen hold her mug under the spout while I pumped. As the cold water gushed forth, filling the mug, I spelled "w-a-t-e-r" in Helen's free hand. The word coming so close upon the sensation of cold water rushing over her hand seemed to startle her. She dropped the mug and stood as one transfixed. A new light came into her face.
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