In October of 1896, Helen entered the Cambridge School for Young Ladies to prepare for admission to Radcliffe. As a young girl, Helen had visited Wellesley—an all-women’s college—and declared that she wanted to attend Harvard, not Wellesley, one day in the future. Helen left New York for Cambridge with the resolve to enter into the competition for admission to Harvard alongside hearing and seeing girls despite the challenges she would face along the way.
Helen has long wanted to achieve a tremendous goal in service of her own education: gaining admission to the most prestigious college in the country. Helen’s desire to prove that she was just as capable as any hearing or sighted person was just as strong as her desire to achieve new heights in her own lifelong pursuit of knowledge and education.
Once at the Cambridge School, Helen had Miss Sullivan attend classes with her and interpret what her instructors were saying. Her teachers at the new school had no experience teaching deaf or blind children, and Helen’s only means of conversing with them was through lip-reading. Helen’s first-year classes consisted of English history, English literature, German, Latin, arithmetic, and Latin composition. Helen had a good start in all of these subjects, and despite her heavy course load, it seemed she would have many advantages.
Helen’s education seemed to be off to a very good start as she navigated the environments of her new classes with the help of her beloved teacher and companion at her side. The education Helen had received from Miss Sullivan, and from her instructors at Perkins and the Wright-Humason school, had laid a strong foundation which allowed Helen to hit the ground running despite it being her first time in a school that didn’t tailor its program to her special needs.
Helen, however, encountered some setbacks to her education early on. Miss Sullivan could not spell out all of Helen’s required reading into her hands, and Helen had to get her textbooks custom-embossed in London and Philadelphia. She had to copy out her own lessons into braille so that she could keep up with the other girls, and though she attempted to use her fairly new speaking skills, her instructors took a while to become familiar with Helen’s imperfect speech. Helen could not take notes in class, as she had to have Miss Sullivan spell everything out to her in real-time. Despite these disadvantages, Helen encountered a lot of kindness, and her German teacher and the school principal learned the finger alphabet in order to better instruct Helen.
Though it seemed that Helen would skate by at the Cambridge School, soon it became evident that a mainstream institution would present new and strange challenges which neither Helen nor Miss Sullivan were entirely prepared to face. Nevertheless, Helen found strength, like always, in her community, and began pushing through institutional barriers with the help and kindness of her teachers.
Helen progressed well in school, and enjoyed her reading in Latin, German, and English literature. Helen delighted in the writers whose work she was reading, and found herself deeply invested in many of the new stories she encountered. Helen also enjoyed, for the first time in her life, the company of seeing and hearing girls her own age. She played, took walks, and had conversations with her new school friends, and many of them even learned sign language so that they could communicate with Helen without Miss Sullivan needing to translate.
Though there were many setbacks Helen had to overcome at her new school, there were also many new joys awaiting her, one of which was finding herself ensconced in a new kind of community and nurturing new kinds of friendship for the first time in her life. Again, Helen found that her peers were willing to go above and beyond to ensure that they could communicate with her and build friendships with her.
At Christmastime, Helen’s mother and her sister Mildred came up to Cambridge, and after the holidays Mildred was permitted to stay on at the school and study with Helen for the rest of the year. Helen loved having her sister at school with her, and they spent many happy months together studying and playing.
An even greater joy came in the form of Mildred’s decision to attend the Cambridge School, as well, which bolstered even further Helen’s sense of love and community there.
Helen took her preliminary examinations for Radcliffe in June and July of 1897. She took exams in German, French, Latin, English, and Greek and Roman history. Helen passed everything and even received honors in German and English. Helen took her examinations in a room by herself, as she needed to use a typewriter, and the proctors did not want her to disturb the other students with the noise. The school principal read all the prompts to Helen by means of the manual alphabet, sentence by sentence. Helen’s exams were difficult, but after the success of her German test, she was encouraged to complete the rest “with a light heart and a steady hand.”
As Helen’s first year came to a close, her examinations themselves reflected the challenges and triumphs of her time so far at Cambridge: she struggled in some arenas, but used the strength and joy she got from defying the expectations of others in order to push forward and not just succeed, but excel.