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Sign Language Studies

American Annals of the Deaf

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Blind Rage: Letters to Helen Keller

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     For my part, I do not believe that the child you called Phantom ceased to exist that day at the pump, and I think you were too quick to deny and denounce her. Because that child already understood about language; she caught on fast. She absorbed words like a sponge. She couldn’t get enough of them. She acquired language at such a startling rate of speed that she made herself sick. By June, you had worked yourself into such a state of nervous exhaustion that the doctor had to be summoned. He prescribed rest. But even as you lay in bed, your fingers were in motion, spelling words into your own hand, the sheer pleasure of the words making you shudder.

     More than pleasure, it was such a relief finally to be able to make yourself clear to the people around you. One day, you found a hole in your boot and wanted your father to send your half-brother Simpson to buy you a new one. You told your father: “new boot Simpson buggy store man.” You had a flair for the telegraphic and an intuition about how to arrange words to represent a sequence of events, causes, and effects.

     You loved the idea of language. Later, when you learned that there were other languages, you couldn’t get enough of them. “Chien means dog in French,” you’d say to anyone who’d pay attention. “Hund means dog in German. Canis means dog in Latin.” You understood language as layers coating every object. There was the object and then there were the many words which stood for the object, piled one on top of another, stacked up like checkers, towers of words reaching to the ceiling. Towers of Babel, you’d think and giggle to yourself with glee.

     But I digress. The point is that you were in love with the very idea of language. You were not merely hardwired for language, but seemed to have had an innate love for it. No teacher can teach that, not even one as obviously gifted as Anne Sullivan. While most people can take language for granted as a convenience, a nicety of human existence, you reveled in it. You had an affinity for it.

     But the event I would like to see re-enacted there at Ivy Green would be how you learned to write. Teacher started early to teach you to read and write, to make the conceptual leap from language spelled into your hand to language written on paper. She would hand you an object—a doll, say—and you would spell the word to her. Then she’d give you a card with the word written in raised type or Braille, and move your hand from the card to the doll, spelling the word into your free hand. You caught onto this surprisingly fast. Soon you were constructing sentences. You would put the doll on the bed, then find the cards with doll, bed, on, and is and arrange them in the right order. “The doll is on the bed.” This game delighted you. You’d tug on her arm and point, first at the objects you’d arranged, then at the sentence, the sequence of cards lined up in a row. You’d drag in others to look at it, your parents, the servants, the dog. You’d jump up and down with pleasure over this, grunting and patting your chest with pride.

     Teacher was surprised by how you took to it. Of course, you’d always had an inkling about written language. People around you read. Your mother was an avid reader. And as your sign for him indicates, your father was always behind a newspaper. You knew they never welcomed your interruptions when they were engaged in this activity. And when you managed to wrestle the book or paper out of their hands, you could not for the life of you fathom what they found so enthralling there. Books smelled good, you discovered, and sometimes letter paper was scented. Occasionally you could feel some texture in the paper, but you suspected there must be more to it than that, and the frustration you felt usually led you to shred pages and strew them around the room. So when Teacher gave you those Braille cards to play with, that infuriating mystery was solved. You recognized immediately that this was the very thing you’d always needed. You’d run around the house collecting objects, then shuffle through the stack of cards for the words. “Baby sits in the chair,” you’d write. “Dog lies on the ground.”


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