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Letters to Helen Keller|
One day, Teacher came into your room and you were not there. She found a row of Braille cards on the floor outside the wardrobe, saying, “The girl is in the wardrobe.” She opened it and found you inside, the words the girl carefully pinned to your dress.
That was when she told you your name. “Helen,” she told you. “The girl,” she touched you, then spelled, “is Helen.”
You were motionless for a moment, in that way you had when something was sinking in. You fingered the cards pinned to your dress. “The girl?” you spelled to her. “The girl is the girl.”
But then you got it. “The girl is Helen,” you repeated. You waved your hand at her, saying, “Card, card, Helen, card.” If you’d known how, you would have snapped your fingers with impatience. She quickly made you a card with your name on it. You unpinned the cards from your dress, found the is on the floor, and composed the sentence: “The girl is Helen.” Then you arranged yourself above this sentence, as if it were a caption to a photograph, and patted your chest with delight.
OK. OK. So this last bit is not entirely accurate. I’m conflating several separate events, and inventing a few actions you may not have actually performed. It’s what writers do, Helen.
Anyway, once Teacher got you hooked on writing, she then showed you how to make a narrative. Someone had caught a mouse in the kitchen and put it in a box. Teacher wrote sentences: “The cat sits on the box. The mouse is in the box. The cat wants to eat the mouse. Give the cat some milk. Give the mouse some cake.” You had not learned all these words yet, but you picked up on it right away. You fell all over yourself running to get the milk, the cake. You made new sentences with the cards: “Helen did give the cat some milk,” making yourself a character in your own story.
For a long time, Helen was your only word for yourself. It seemed to take a long time for you to adopt the personal pronoun, even though I requires a lot less effort to write, Braille, or fingerspell. But you insisted on the proper name. Helen Keller. Helen Adams Keller. Helen A. Keller. Apparently, I was too thin and flimsy to bear the weight of all you wanted to say.
For you, writing was the missing link that allowed you to connect yourself, the phantom inside your body, with the outside world. Writing allowed you to make an impression of your inner self—on paper, or in a row of cards on a table. You could leave the cards there and come back later and read the record of an earlier state of mind. Or you could arrange sentences on a page, seal them in an envelope, and send them off into the outside world, beyond the confines of your own body, beyond the confines of your home, farther than you could walk or ride. Later, a letter would come back to you, and you could touch the impressions made by another hand, another self. Written language allowed you to transcend space and time. It allowed your mind to expand outward and encircle the universe. It allowed you to reach into the past and touch the imagination of someone long dead. It allowed you to reach into the future perhaps to imagine me writing this letter to you, dead for more than thirty years.
In your house, I scuffed the floor to raise a dust. But I think there’s nothing of Phantom left there. I think they’ve swept and scoured and vacuumed away every trace.
I should not be critical that when you finally got the means to put yourself on paper, you chose the “lovely child” of good table manners, cheerful industry, and saintly overtones rather than the curious, willful, resourceful child hungry for words. You were only seven years old and lacked the sophistication to represent your self in all its true complexity. And in 1887, little girls weren’t supposed to have that much depth or drive. Or maybe you recognized that the pretty, docile child would be a better medium for your message. Who am I to judge? The version of my self that I use to write this letter is no more authentic or accurate than the self you constructed in your writing.