In the spring of 1890, Helen learned to speak. For years, she’d wanted to utter sounds in order to express herself. She had laughed and cried and exercised her vocal chords through wordless utterances, but could not remember how to speak as she had just been learning to do when her illness struck. She was dissatisfied with her means of communication—the manual alphabet—and as she grew older this dissatisfaction only grew. One day, Helen heard the story of a deaf and blind Norwegian girl who had been taught to speak, and soon was “on fire with eagerness” to learn herself. Miss Sullivan took Helen to study with Miss Sarah Fuller, the principal of the Horace Mann School, and soon her speech lessons began.
In this chapter, Helen demonstrates her desire to continually broaden her horizons and challenge other people’s expectations of what she could do. Helen, bursting with love for the natural world and desire for more and more experiences, longed to be able to communicate more intuitively with her loved ones, and fought intrepidly to pursue her goals. Speaking out loud, for Helen, represents one step closer to being able to communicate with others around her without so much mediation or as many obstacles.
Miss Fuller would pass Helen’s hand over her face and allow Helen to feel the position of her tongue and lips when she made a sound. In just an hour, Helen learned the major elements of speech, and after eleven lessons she was able to utter her first connected sentence: “It is warm.” With the ability to speak out loud, Helen felt her soul come “out of bondage” and reach for new heights.
Helen spoke to everyone and everything—her toys, stones, trees, and animals. It was a thrill to speak in words that did not need to be interpreted by another, and Helen found herself expressing thoughts through words that “might perhaps have struggled in vain to escape [her] fingers.”
Helen was so excited to share her new skill, and delighted in expressing herself even to inanimate objects. As she did so, she found her thoughts soaring to new heights, and realized that her goal of communicating more deftly was on its way to being achieved.
Helen admits that she could not “really” talk at this time—she had only learned the elements of speech. Her teachers could understand her, but most others could not. Miss Sullivan helped Helen daily to practice her speech, and though even now Miss Sullivan still corrects Helen’s mispronounced words here and there, their shared labors have paid off. The work of learning to speak was fraught with “discouragement and weariness,” but the desire to show her loved ones all that she could accomplish spurred Helen on, and any time she thought of talking with her sister and her mother she was able to pull herself up out of her frustration.
Helen struggled mightily in pursuit of her goal, but undertook her journey towards speech knowing that it would be a lifelong endeavor which would challenge her repeatedly as the years passed by. Helen was spirited in this pursuit by the thought of communicating more effortlessly with her family, and being able to engage with them in a new way.
At last, it was time for Helen to return home to Tuscumbia and show her family what she had learned. At the Tuscumbia train station, Helen met her entire family on the platform, and as Helen spoke out loud to them for the first time, her mother hugged Helen and “tremble[d] with delight,” her sister Mildred kissed her hands, and her father was so stunned and proud that he could only manage silence.
Helen’s family was proud and delighted as she shared her new skill with them, and from Helen’s description of their happy trembling and outward displays of affection, it is clear that they were deeply moved by how hard she had worked and how far she had come.