Having finally gained admission to Radcliffe, Helen could enroll whenever she pleased. However, despite her earlier desire to enroll as soon as possible, Helen decided to take another year to study with her private tutor, and did not begin her studies at Radcliffe until the fall of 1900.
As Helen has grown older, her needs and desires have shifted. Where it was once of paramount importance to keep up with her classmates, she now realizes that it is more beneficial to go at her own pace and attend to her own needs rather than a false idea of success or progress.
Helen remembers her first day of Radcliffe—it was a day she had awaited for many years. She had been compelled by a “potent force” inside of herself to test her strength and skills alongside seeing and hearing people, and was determined to overcome whatever obstacles would stand in her way. She did not want to be “debarred from the great highways of knowledge,” and delighted in the idea that at college she could be in the presence of “girls who were thinking, loving, and struggling” in the same ways that she herself was.
Helen’s years of determination paid off, and as she began her studies at Radcliffe, she congratulated herself for having stopped at nothing to ensure that the same privileges afforded to other girls her age were eventually bestowed upon her. One of the major statements Helen is trying to make with this book is that she is not so different from other girls her age, and as she began classes at Radcliffe, she was able to show the world that that was true.
Helen began her studies with eagerness, knowing that in the land of the mind she was as free as any of her classmates. However, Helen soon discovered that college “was not quite the romantic lyceum” she’d always imagined, and that there were in fact many disadvantages in going to college. The one she still feels the most to this day is lack of time. Helen used to have endless time to sit and reflect alone with her thoughts, but in college there is no time for that—solitude, books, and imagination are left behind for fast-paced learning and regurgitation of information.
Helen was so focused on gaining admission to Radcliffe, and romanticizing what it would be like to study there, that she did not account for the ways in which her education there would be different from her expectations. Helen is surprised by the focus on speed and filling one’s time rather than luxuriating in education and truly coming to know things in one’s own time.
Helen writes that she is frequently asked about how she overcame—and continues to overcome—the “peculiar conditions” necessary for her to work, and endeavors to explain just how to her readers. In the classroom the words are spelled rapidly into her hands as the professor speaks, and though there is no time to take notes, she is able to keep up and retain information with little trouble. She uses a typewriter to complete her written work.
As Helen gives her readers a peek into what daily academic life is like for her, she acknowledges the ways in which she is in fact very different from her classmates, and highlights the strenuous extra pressure put on her by institutional insensitivity to her needs and the desire to keep up with her friends and classmates.
Very few of Helen’s course books are printed for the blind, and so Miss Sullivan spells many of them directly into Helen’s hands. Because of this, Helen needs more time than most girls to prepare for her lessons, and there are many days, she admits, when the extra time and attention she must spend on preparation for lectures frustrates her and leaves her feeling dejected. She always pulls herself out of these sad spells, however, by reminding herself that “every one who wishes to gain true knowledge must climb the Hill Difficulty alone.” Helen knows that she must “zigzag” up to the summit in her own way, and that even if she slips and falls in her pursuits, she must trudge on and gain a little ground at a time—“every struggle,” she says, “is a victory.”
Helen is having a difficult time, but instead of getting bogged down in how overwhelming her education is, along with all that is required to pursue it, she resolves to focus on how each struggle broadens her horizons, teaches her more about herself, and prepares her to continue to struggle upwards as she pursues knowledge and a sense of community.
This year, her third at Radcliffe, Helen is studying subjects that intrigue her—Elizabethan literature, Shakespeare, and the History of Philosophy. College is not the “universal Athens” she thought it would be, and Helen laments that she does not meet the great and the wise face to face. She has found that engaging with literature requires great sympathy rather than just understanding, and that it is important not to get caught up in criticism and opinion, but rather to simply focus on the poetry and true meaning of the great works.
Now in her third year of studies, Helen has come to terms with how different Radcliffe is from what she thought it would be, and now delights in her courses and the challenges they present. She is trying to find a way to meld her own priorities when it comes to education with the university’s priorities, and keep in mind that there is a deeper meaning to the things she’s studying.
Helen, at times, wishes she could “sweep away” much of what she is expected to learn—she feels that it is easy to lose sight of the reasons why she is reading when she has to keep up with so much schoolwork for the sake of “understanding” the things she is reading rather than simply communing with them, appreciating them, and enjoying the “treasure” she finds in the written word. She regrets having to read “hurriedly and nervously,” and fears “smash[ing[ the idols she came [to college] to worship.” Exams are a nuisance and an ordeal, and she hates having to search her brain and regurgitate what she has learned for a grade.
The earlier days of Helen’s education, which were focused on communing with nature, nourishing her soul alongside her mind, and exploring the possibilities and constrictions of language and communication, are long gone. Helen is afraid, on some level, to undo all the learning of her youth, and constantly reminds herself that true education is knowledge of the spirit and the self, of art and beauty, and not just what one can regurgitate on paper.
Helen writes that when her days at Radcliffe were still in her future, “they were encircled with a halo of romance.” Though they have since lost that rosy glow, she has actually learned many important things. She has learned the science and the importance of patience, and now knows that it is important to treat one’s education leisurely and openly, as one might treat a walk in the country. She feels it is important to let knowledge flood one’s soul rather than just cram into one’s mind. Knowledge is not just power, she says, but happiness, and acquiring knowledge of the past allows one to “feel the great heart-throbs of humanity through the centuries.”
Just as Helen came to learn that struggling teaches her more and expands her worldview, she has come to realize that being somewhat disappointed in Radcliffe has actually allowed her to enjoy it more. She is learning what she can while she is here, while always keeping in the back of her mind an awareness that knowledge is a means not just to power or superiority but to true inner happiness. It gives her a sense of communion with the entire history of the world and the human experience.