The next major step in Helen’s education was learning how to read. After Helen could spell a few words in sign language, Miss Sullivan began giving her pieces of cardboard upon which words were printed in raised letters. As Helen began to understand that each word stood for an object, act, feeling, or quality, she practiced arranging the words in sentences. One day, she pinned the word girl on her dress and stood in the wardrobe, arranging the words is, in, and wardrobe on the shelf. She delighted in this game, and played at it with Miss Sullivan for hours at a time each day. Soon, Helen was reading printed books in braille.
From the start, Helen took great delight and pride in her education, and longed to learn just as she longed to impress her beloved teacher with her cleverness, inventiveness, and intrepid nature. As Helen’s conception of language expanded, she hungered for more and more knowledge and ways of expressing herself, and became an avid reader in no time at all.
Helen had no “regular” lessons for a long time—in the early days of her education, everything felt more like play than work, and Miss Sullivan used stories and poems to illustrate many concepts for Helen. Miss Sullivan had a “peculiar sympathy” with all of Helen’s needs, as well as a “wonderful faculty for description.” She taught Helen little by little, and never forced her pupil to focus on uninteresting things or nagged her with repetitive questions. Most of Helen’s lessons took place outside, as both she and Miss Sullivan preferred to be in nature, among the lovely trees, frogs, flowers, and insects.
Helen attributes the joy she took in her education and the miraculous speed with which she learned and retained things about herself and the world around her to Miss Sullivan’s sympathy, grace, patience, and expressiveness. Helen’s love of language and nature grew out of Miss Sullivan’s love of those things, and Helen became more and more fond of the same things her teacher liked as the weeks and months went by.
Helen often rose at dawn to steal into her father’s garden and feel the flowers beneath her hands, occasionally catching insects as well. Miss Sullivan would often take Helen down to a lumber wharf on the Tennessee River, and there they would have geography lessons. Helen would play with pebbles and make islands and lakes in the muddy banks, mirroring the descriptions of geography, history, and cartography Miss Sullivan was imparting to her. Helen hardly ever realized she was being instructed in anything—she was having so much fun. The only subject she did not take to was arithmetic, and did not have the patience to go very far with numbers.
Helen’s love of nature expanded and grew as she explored more and more not just of her own backyard but of the geography of the town around her. Helen delighted in taking in all this new information, and hardly realized that she was being “educated”—she was simply learning, and found great joy in acquiring more and more language and knowledge.
Helen studied zoology and botany practically, by examining fossils and shells, by growing plants on her windowsill, and by raising tadpoles in a glass globe. She learned about life from life itself, and credits Miss Sullivan, again with, pointing out “the beauty that is in everything.” Miss Sullivan made the first years of Helen’s education “beautiful” by feeding it with beautiful things, and encouraging Helen to approach her studies both practically and joyfully.
Helen credits Miss Sullivan with instilling a love of learning, language, and nature in her, and with making everything seem so beautiful, exciting, and enticing. Helen learned by doing, and expanded her knowledge and skills rapidly without even realizing that an “education” was taking place.
To this day, Helen writes, she cannot tell how much of her delight in beautiful things and in the natural world is innate, and how much is due to Miss Sullivan’s influence. Helen also feels that Miss Sullivan’s being is “inseparable” from her own being, and that all the best of Helen belongs to Miss Sullivan, and was first “awakened by her loving touch.”