As she began her second year at the Cambridge school, Helen was determined to succeed—but during the first few weeks of school, as Helen’s course load tilted toward mathematics principally, Helen found herself struggling. Her math classes were very large, and she did not receive any special instruction from her teachers. Miss Sullivan was tasked with translating and interpreting for Helen, and for the first time in their entire relationship it seemed as if neither of them was up to the task.
Helen encountered, for the first time, real and serious obstacles to her education. Math had always been a nuisance, but now Helen was forced to study it not at her own pace but amongst others her age—and to keep up with her fellow classmates despite her dislike of the subject and the unique challenges she faced in bettering her math skills.
Helen eventually acquired a braille writer, which allowed her to keep track of the steps in her work, but as she still could not see the figures being drawn on the blackboard, she needed to have Miss Sullivan make shapes for her on a cushion with straight and curved wires. This process was difficult, and Helen often lost her courage. Little by little, however, as the year went on, Helen’s struggles began to disappear. Her specially-embossed books arrived at last, and she threw herself into the work despite her insecurities in algebra and geometry.
As Helen slowly but surely maneuvered the obstacles in her path, she often found herself getting discouraged or doubting herself. As Helen slowly acquired the tools she needed, though, and settled into the routine and rhythm of her studies alongside Miss Sullivan, she found a renewed sense of determination and resolved to persevere in the face of difficulty.
The principal of the school believed that Helen was working too hard, and so reduced the number of her lessons despite her protests. Helen, realizing that this meant that she would need extra time to finish school and would not enter college with her class, was vexed and upset. One day, when Helen was feeling ill and did not attend classes, the principal came to believe that Helen was overworked, and refused to let her take her final examinations with her class. Helen’s mother withdrew both Helen and Mildred from the school.
Despite Helen’s resolve to work hard and keep up despite obstacles, many of those around her still doubted her and attempted to discourage her from working as hard as she needed to work in order to succeed. Helen’s mother, in protest, removed both Helen and Mildred from the school environment, not wanting her children to be underestimated or mollycoddled.
Helen continued her studies with an independent tutor, and took many of her lessons in Wrentham, Massachusetts, at a family friend’s country home, from February to July. In October of 1898, Helen and Miss Sullivan returned to Boston and continued lessons with the private tutor, and Helen’s college preparation went on without any interruption. She enjoyed private lessons much more than she had enjoyed class time—there was no hurry or confusion, and Helen was able to go at her own pace. She finally began to enjoy mathematics with the help of her tutor.
Helen found herself relieved to be away from the intellectual and emotional confines of a traditional education, but remained determined to continue her education by working with her tutor to prepare for her final Radcliffe entrance exams.
In June of 1899, Helen sat her final exams for entrance to Radcliffe over the course of two days. The college authorities barred Miss Sullivan from sitting with Helen during her exams and reading the papers to her, so one of the instructors from the Perkins Institution for the Blind copied all of Helen’s papers into braille. This worked for the languages, but was complicated in the geometry and algebra exams, and Helen felt discouraged. Helen’s work on the exams was “painfully slow,” but she does not blame the Radcliffe administrative board—they did not realize Helen’s particular needs, and despite the unintentional obstacles they placed in her way, she is to this day satisfied in the knowledge that she overcame them all.
In this rather cheeky passage, Helen sets up all the obstacles which she found herself facing as she took her final exams, and then recounts how she toppled each one of them and ultimately accomplished one of her most important goals. This passage demonstrates Helen’s extreme perseverance, and highlights how her nontraditional education, despite her desire to get away from it, ultimately aided her in achieving her dreams.