Helen remembers the day on which her teacher, Miss Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to Tuscumbia as the most important one of her life. Years and years later, she is still “filled with wonder” when she considers how that day fused her life with Miss Sullivan’s. On the afternoon of Miss Sullivan’s arrival, Helen sat on the porch, vaguely aware from the hustle and bustle throughout the house that something unusual was taking place that day. As Miss Sullivan walked up the porch steps, Helen stretched out her hand and felt someone take it. She describes herself as having been like a ship at sea in a dense fog, with no compass or hope of safe harbor, in the years before Miss Sullivan’s arrival, but now her teacher had come to reveal “all things” to her, and more than that, to love her.
Miss Sullivan’s arrival marked a turning point in Helen’s life, and as Helen recalls the fateful day when Miss Sullivan came to stay, she finds herself dipping into metaphor in order to express the profundity of the way in which Miss Sullivan saved her from darkness, isolation, obscurity, and fear. Helen didn’t know it at the time, but Miss Sullivan would soon transform her entire world, and more than just educating and enlightening her, would love, support, and cherish her for all her days.
On Miss Sullivan’s first morning in Tuscumbia, she gave Helen a porcelain doll—a gift from the children at the Perkins Institution, though Helen did not know this at the time. After Helen had played with the doll for a while, Miss Sullivan spelled out the letters “d-o-l-l” into Helen’s palm in sign language. Helen, believing this to be a new sort of game, imitated the letters back, and soon was spelling many more words. Despite her quick learning, Helen didn’t understand that she was spelling a word, “or even that words existed.”
When she arrived in Tuscumbia, Miss Sullivan found a little girl completely unaware of the existence of language. The task before her was enormous, but Miss Sullivan set right to it, and though Helen could not really comprehend the earliest words she was being taught, her desire to impress her teacher enabled her to pick up on the manual alphabet skills which would soon become her lifeline to the outside world.
One afternoon some time later, Miss Sullivan, frustrated by Helen’s inability to grasp language, attempted to present Helen with two different types of dolls and explain that the word applied to both playthings. When Helen grew impatient, she dashed her porcelain doll on the floor and shattered it. Miss Sullivan put Helen’s sun hat on her head and pulled her out to the well-house. She placed Helen’s hands beneath the spout and spelled the word “water” into her hand, and suddenly, Helen understood; “the mystery of language was revealed.”
Helen took her mischievous, feisty, and sometimes even cruel attitude out on Miss Sullivan, and the moment of anger and passion led to one of the most famous moments of Helen Keller’s life and a tremendous breakthrough for the young girl. This pattern of frustration, breakdown, and breakthrough will repeat frequently throughout the story of Helen’s life as she conquers the many obstacles she encounters again and again.
Helen left the well-house, eager to learn the names of everything around her. She was delighted by her new knowledge, and felt that as if every object around her suddenly seemed to “quiver with life.” When Helen returned to her room and found the doll dashed on the floor, she began to cry, full of sorrow. Throughout the rest of the day, Helen learned the words for mother, father, sister, and teacher, and when she went to bed that night, she longed for the first time “for a new day to come.”
For the first time in Helen’s life, she realized that she had the ability to communicate with others, to influence them, and to express herself. She found herself in touch with new emotions and new expressions, and became determined and even excited to persevere through the days ahead for the first time in her young life.