The Story of My Life

Born in June of 1880 in the small town of Tuscumbia, Alabama, Helen Keller enjoyed a happy childhood until an illness—most likely scarlet fever—left her deaf, dumb, and blind at just nineteen months old. As Helen grew older, the crude signs she and her parents had developed to allow her to communicate with them became insufficient. She longed to express herself more fully. At the behest of Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, Helen’s parents wrote to Dr. Aragnos, the director of the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston, and he suggested a teacher come to Tuscumbia to teach Helen. When Miss Anne Mansfield Sullivan arrived several months later, Helen’s parents feared that their unruly child couldn’t be taught, but Miss Sullivan’s patient disposition and steadfast approach led to a major breakthrough in Helen’s conception of language, and soon Helen was signing, communicating, and learning about the wide world around her. Helen’s lessons were mostly conducted outside, as Miss Sullivan instilled in her a deep and abiding love of nature. She became a voracious reader, and her desire for self-expression grew; as Helen learned more and more about the world, signing was no longer sufficient, and Helen sought speech lessons which would enable her to use her voice at long last. Helen’s insatiable appetite for learning took her to special schools in New York City and Boston, and eventually, to a mainstream girls’ preparatory school in Cambridge, where she studied hard and took examinations to gain admission to the prestigious Radcliffe College, the women’s college at Harvard University. Despite the many setbacks, roadblocks, tragedies, and hardships Helen faced, she never gave into fear or self-doubt and constantly remembered the value of education, self-expression, and communion with and goodwill towards others. Helen’s arc ties in with all of the book’s major themes: determination and perseverance; education; storytelling and communication; and friendship, community, and goodwill. The Story of My Life is Helen’s first book. She composed it while she was in her third year at Radcliffe.

Helen Keller Quotes in The Story of My Life

The The Story of My Life quotes below are all either spoken by Helen Keller or refer to Helen Keller. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Determination and Perseverance Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Dover Thrift Editions edition of The Story of My Life published in 1996.
Chapter 1  Quotes

It is with a kind of fear that I begin to write the history of my life. I have, as it were, a superstitious hesitation in lifting the veil that clings about my childhood like a golden mist. The task of writing an autobiography is a difficult one. When I try to classify my earliest impressions, I find that fact and fancy look alike across the years that link the past with the present. The woman paints the child’s experiences in her own fantasy. A few impressions stand out vividly from the first years of my life; but “the shadows of the prison-house are on the rest.” Besides, many of the joys and sorrows of childhood have lost their poignancy; and many incidents of vital importance in my early education have been forgotten in the excitement of great discoveries. In order, therefore, not to be tedious I shall try to present in a series of sketches only the episodes that seem to me to be the most interesting and important.

Related Characters: Helen Keller (speaker)
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:
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One of my Swiss ancestors was the first teacher of the deaf in Zurich and wrote a book on the subject of their education—rather a singular coincidence; though it is true that there is no king who has not had a slave among his ancestors, and no slave who has not had a king among his.

Related Characters: Helen Keller (speaker), Arthur H. Keller
Page Number: 1
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I fancy I still have confused recollections of that illness. I especially remember the tenderness with which my mother tried to soothe me in my waking hours of fret and pain, and the agony and bewilderment with which I awoke after a tossing half sleep, and turned my eyes, so dry and hot, to the wall, away from the once-loved light, which came to me dim and yet more dim each day. But, except for these fleeting memories, if, indeed, they be memories, it all seems very unreal, like a nightmare. Gradually I got used to the silence and darkness that surrounded me and forgot that it had ever been different, until she came—my teacher—who was to set my spirit free. But during the first nineteen months of my life I had caught glimpses of broad, green fields, a luminous sky, trees and flowers which the darkness that followed could not wholly blot out. If we have once seen, “the day is ours, and what the day has shown.”

Page Number: 4
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Chapter 4 Quotes

Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward the shore with plummet and sounding-line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without compass or sounding-line, and had no way of knowing how near the harbor was. “Light! Give me light!” was the wordless cry of my soul, and the light of love shone on me in that very hour.

Related Characters: Helen Keller (speaker), Miss Anne Mansfield Sullivan
Page Number: 11
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Chapter 7 Quotes

We read and studied out of doors, preferring the sunlit woods to the house. All my early lessons have in them the breath of the woods—the fine, resinous odour of pine needles, blended with the perfume of wild grapes. Seated in the gracious shade of a wild tulip tree, I learned to think that everything has a lesson and a suggestion. “The loveliness of things taught me all their use.” Indeed, everything that could hum, or buzz, or sing, or bloom, had a part in my education—noisy-throated frogs, katydids and crickets held in my hand until, forgetting their embarrassment, they trilled their reedy note, little downy chickens and wildflowers, the dogwood blossoms, meadow-violets and budding fruit trees.

Related Characters: Helen Keller (speaker)
Related Symbols: Nature
Page Number: 17
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My teacher is so near to me that I scarcely think of myself apart from her. How much of my delight in all beautiful things is innate, and how much is due to her influence, I can never tell. I feel that her being is inseparable from my own, and that the footsteps of my life are in hers. All the best of me belongs to her—there is not a talent, or an inspiration or a joy in me that has not awakened by her loving touch.

Related Characters: Helen Keller (speaker), Miss Anne Mansfield Sullivan
Related Symbols: Nature
Page Number: 20
Explanation and Analysis:
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Chapter 13 Quotes

I had known for a long time that the people about me used a method of communication different from mine; and even before I knew that a deaf child could be taught to speak, I was conscious of dissatisfaction with the means of communication I already possessed. One who is entirely dependent upon the manual alphabet has always a sense of restraint, of narrowness. This feeling began to agitate me with a vexing, forward-reaching sense of a lack that should be filled.

Related Characters: Helen Keller (speaker)
Page Number: 30
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I would not rest satisfied until my teacher took me, for advice and assistance, to Miss Sarah Fuller, principal of the Horace Mann School. This lovely, sweet-natured lady offered to teach me herself, and we began the twenty-sixth of March, 1890. Miss Fuller’s method was this: she passed my hand lightly over her face, and let me feel the position of her tongue and lips when she made a sound. I was eager to imitate every motion and in an hour had learned six elements of speech. Miss Fuller gave me eleven lessons in all. I shall never forget the surprise and delight I felt when I uttered my first connected sentence, “It is warm.” True, they were broken and stammering syllables, but they were human speech. My soul, conscious of new strength, came out of bondage, and was reaching through those broken symbols of speech to all knowledge and face. […] As I talked, happy thoughts fluttered up out of my words that might perhaps have struggled in vain to escape my fingers.

Page Number: 31
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My work was practice, practice, practice. Discouragement and weariness cast me down frequently; but the next moment the thought that I should soon be at home and show my loved ones what I had accomplished spurred me on, and I eagerly looked forward to their pleasure in my achievement.

“My little sister will understand me now,” was a thought stronger than all obstacles. I used to repeat ecstatically, “I am not dumb now.” I could not be despondent while I anticipated the delight of talking to my mother and reading her responses from her lips.

Related Characters: Helen Keller (speaker), Kate Adams Keller, Mildred Keller
Page Number: 32
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Chapter 14 Quotes

The stories [from “Birdie and His Friends”] had little or no meaning for me then, but the mere spelling of the strange words was sufficient to amuse a little who could who could do almost nothing to amuse herself; and although I do not recall a single circumstance connected with the reading of the stories, yet I cannot help thinking that I made a great effort to remember the words.… One thing is certain, the language was ineffaceably stamped upon my brain, though for a long time no one knew it, least of all myself.

Related Characters: Helen Keller (speaker)
Page Number: 35
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Miss Canby [the author of “The Frost Fairies”] herself wrote kindly, “Some day you will write a great story out of your own head, that will be a comfort and help to many.” But this kind prophecy has never been fulfilled. I have never played with words again for the mere pleasure of the game. Indeed, I have ever since been tortured by the fear that what I write is not my own. For a long time, when I wrote a letter, even to my mother, I was seized with a sudden feeling of terror, and I would spell the sentences over and over, to make sure that I had not read them in a book. Had it not been for the persistent encouragement of Miss Sullivan, I think I should have given up trying to write altogether.

Related Characters: Helen Keller (speaker)
Page Number: 36
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I was learning, as all young and inexperienced persons learn, by assimilation and imitation, to put ideas into words. Everything I found in books that pleased me I retained in my memory, consciously or unconsciously, and adapted it. The young writer, as Stevenson has said, instinctively tries to copy whatever seems most admirable, and he shifts his admiration with astonishing versatility. It is only after years of this sort of practice that even great men have learned to marshal the legion of words which come thronging through every byway of the mind. I am afraid I have not yet completed this process. It is certain that I cannot always distinguish my own thoughts from those I read, because what I read becomes the very substance and texture of my mind. […] But we keep on trying because we know that others have succeeded, and we are not willing to acknowledge defeat.

Related Characters: Helen Keller (speaker)
Page Number: 37
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Chapter 15 Quotes

It seems strange to many people that I should be impressed by the wonders and beauties of Niagara. They are always asking: what does this beauty or that music mean to you? You cannot see the waves rolling up the beach or hear their roar. What do they mean to you?” In the most evident sense they mean everything. I cannot fathom or define their meaning any more than I can fathom or define love or religion or goodness.

Related Characters: Helen Keller (speaker)
Related Symbols: Nature
Page Number: 39
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Chapter 19 Quotes

I do not blame any one. The administrative board of Radcliffe did not realize how difficult they were making my examinations, nor did they understand the peculiar difficulties I had to surmount. But if they unintentionally placed obstacles in my way, I have the consolation of knowing that I overcame them all.

Related Characters: Helen Keller (speaker)
Page Number: 50
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Chapter 20 Quotes

I remember my first day at Radcliffe. It was a day full of interest for me. I had looked forward to it for years. A potent force within me, stronger than the persuasion of my friends, stronger even than the pleadings of my heart, had impelled me to try my strength by the standards of those who see and hear. I knew that there were many obstacles in the way; but I was eager to overcome them. I had taken to heart the words of the wise Roman who said, “To be banished from Rome is but to live outside of Rome.” Debarred from the great highways of knowledge, I was compelled to make the journey across by unfrequented roads—that was all; and I knew that in college there were many bypaths where I could touch hands with girls who were thinking, loving and struggling like me.

Related Characters: Helen Keller (speaker)
Page Number: 51
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I need more time to prepare my lessons than other girls…I have perplexities which they have not. There are days when the close attention I must give to details chafes my spirit, and the thought that I must spend hours reading a few chapters, while in the world without other girls are laughing and singing and dancing, makes me rebellious; but soon I recover my buoyancy and laugh the discontent out of my heart. For, after all, every one who wishes to gain true knowledge must climb the Hill Difficulty alone, and since there is no royal road to the summit, I must zigzag it in my own way. I slip back many times, I fall, I stand still, I run against the edge of hidden obstacles, I lose my temper and find it again and keep it better. I trudge on, I gain a little, I feel encouraged, I get more eager and climb higher and begin to see the widening horizon. Every struggle is a victory.

Related Characters: Helen Keller (speaker)
Page Number: 52-53
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While my days at Radcliffe were still in the future, they were encircled with a halo of romance, which they have lost; but in the transition from romantic to actual I have learned many things I should never have known had I not tried the experiment. One of them is the precious science of patience, which teaches us that we should take our education as we would take a walk in the country, leisurely, our minds hospitably open to impressions of every sort. Such knowledge floods the soul unseen with a soundless tidal wave of deepening thought. “Knowledge is power.” Rather, knowledge is happiness, because to have knowledge—broad, deep knowledge—is to know true ends from false, and lofty things from low. To know the thoughts and deeds that have marked man’s progress is to feel the great heart-throbs of humanity through the centuries; and if one does not feel in these pulsations a heavenward striving, one must indeed be deaf to the harmonies of life.

Related Characters: Helen Keller (speaker)
Related Symbols: Nature
Page Number: 55
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Chapter 21 Quotes

I read [books] in the intervals between study and play with an ever-deepening sense of pleasure. I did not study nor analyze them—I did not know whether they were well written or not; I never thought about style or authorship. They laid their treasures at my feet, and I accepted them as we accept the sunshine and the love of our friends. I loved Little Women because it gave me a sense of kinship with girls and boys who could see and hear. Circumscribed as my life was in so many ways, I had to look between the covers of books for news of the world that lay outside my own.

Related Characters: Helen Keller (speaker)
Page Number: 57-58
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In a word, literature is my Utopia. Here I am not disenfranchised. No barrier of the senses shuts me out from the sweet, gracious discourse of my book-friends. They talk to me without embarrassment or awkwardness. The things I have learned and the things I have been taught seem of ridiculously little importance compared with their “large loves and heavenly charities.”

Related Characters: Helen Keller (speaker)
Page Number: 63
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Chapter 22 Quotes

Is it no true, then, that my life with all its limitations touches at many points the life of the World Beautiful? Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I may be in, therein to be content. Sometimes, it is true, a sense of isolation enfolds me like a cold mist as I sit alone and wait at life’s shut gate. Beyond there is light, and music, and sweet companionship; but I may not enter. Fate, silent, pitiless, bars the way. Fain would I question his imperious decree; for my heart is still undisciplined and passionate; but my tongue will not utter the bitter, futile words that rise to my lips, and they fall back into my heart like unshed tears. Silence sits immense upon my soul. Then comes hope with a smile and whispers, “There is joy in self-forgetfulness.” So I try to make the light in others’ eyes my sun, the music in others’ ears my symphony, the smile on others’ lips my happiness.

Related Characters: Helen Keller (speaker)
Page Number: 70
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Chapter 23 Quotes

Thus it is that my friends have made the story of my life. In a thousand ways they have turned my limitations into beautiful privileges, and enabled me to walk serene and happy in the shadow cast by my deprivation.

Related Characters: Helen Keller (speaker)
Page Number: 75
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Helen Keller Character Timeline in The Story of My Life

The timeline below shows where the character Helen Keller appears in The Story of My Life. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1 
Determination and Perseverance Theme Icon
Storytelling and Communication Theme Icon
“With a kind of fear,” Helen Keller begins telling the story of her life. She has hesitated to “lift the veil”... (full context)
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Helen writes that she was born on June 27, 1880 in Tuscumbia, a small town in... (full context)
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Helen writes that she is distantly related to Robert E. Lee on her father’s side, and... (full context)
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Up until the time of the illness which robbed Helen of her sight and her hearing, she lived in a “tiny house” on her father’s... (full context)
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The beginning of her life, Helen writes, was “much like every other little life.” She was an intrepid child and she... (full context)
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The “happy days” of Helen’s early childhood did not last long—they were dashed when one dreary February, Helen was struck... (full context)
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Helen believes that she still has memories of her illness. She recalls her mother trying to... (full context)
Chapter 2 
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Helen does not remember much of the first few months after her illness, but she knows... (full context)
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Though Helen was impaired, she still understood a lot of what was happening around her. She could... (full context)
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Helen’s constant companions were her dog Belle and a girl named Martha Washington, the daughter of... (full context)
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Helen found herself getting into mischief like any other child; she and Martha cut one another’s... (full context)
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When Helen was about five, their family moved from the little vine-covered house to a new, larger... (full context)
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As for Helen’s little sister, Mildred, who came into the world when Helen was a few years old,... (full context)
Chapter 3
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As Helen grew older, her desire to express herself grew as well. The few signs she could... (full context)
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When Helen was about six, her father arranged to take her to a renowned oculist in Baltimore... (full context)
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In Baltimore, the oculist received the Kellers kindly, but could not do anything for Helen’s eyes. Nevertheless, he advised them to get in touch with Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, who... (full context)
Chapter 4
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Helen remembers the day on which her teacher, Miss Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to Tuscumbia as... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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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... (full context)
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Helen left the well-house, eager to learn the names of everything around her. She was delighted... (full context)
Chapter 5
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The summer of 1887 was the summer of the “awakening” of Helen’s soul. She explored with her hands and learned the name of everything she touched, and... (full context)
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Helen did have an experience, however, which taught her that nature is not always kind. One... (full context)
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Helen did not climb another tree for a long time after this incident, but one morning,... (full context)
Chapter 6
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Helen now had the key to language, and was eager to learn how to use it.... (full context)
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As Helen learned more and more about language, she began to ask Miss Sullivan more and more... (full context)
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A few days later, when Helen made a mistake while stringing beads of different sizes into groups, she found herself struggling... (full context)
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Helen explains that Miss Sullivan always spoke to Helen with the eloquence she would use to... (full context)
Chapter 7
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The next major step in Helen’s education was learning how to read. After Helen could spell a few words in sign... (full context)
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Helen had no “regular” lessons for a long time—in the early days of her education, everything... (full context)
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Helen often rose at dawn to steal into her father’s garden and feel the flowers beneath... (full context)
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Helen studied zoology and botany practically, by examining fossils and shells, by growing plants on her... (full context)
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To this day, Helen writes, she cannot tell how much of her delight in beautiful things and in the... (full context)
Chapter 8
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Helen writes that the first Christmas after Miss Sullivan came to Tuscumbia was “a great event.”... (full context)
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On Christmas Eve, Helen joined the Tuscumbia schoolchildren at their celebration, and she marveled at the beautiful and tall... (full context)
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Helen cared dutifully for Little Tim—she cleaned his cage and fed and watered him each day.... (full context)
Chapter 9
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In May of 1888, Helen, her mother, and Miss Sullivan took a journey by train to Boston to the Perkins... (full context)
Chapter 10
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Just before the Perkins Institution closed for the summer, Miss Sullivan and Helen decided to spend their vacation in Cape Cod. As soon as Helen and Miss Sullivan... (full context)
Chapter 11
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In the fall, Helen and Miss Sullivan returned to Alabama with full hearts and happy memories. Helen spent the... (full context)
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At the foot of the mountain there was a railroad, and often Helen and Mildred and their friends would watch the train go by. The tracks ran over... (full context)
Chapter 12
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After her first visit to Boston, Helen spent nearly every winter up North. Once she visited a small New England village, and... (full context)
Chapter 13
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In the spring of 1890, Helen learned to speak. For years, she’d wanted to utter sounds in order to express herself.... (full context)
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Miss Fuller would pass Helen’s hand over her face and allow Helen to feel the position of her tongue and... (full context)
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Helen spoke to everyone and everything—her toys, stones, trees, and animals. It was a thrill to... (full context)
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Helen admits that she could not “really” talk at this time—she had only learned the elements... (full context)
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At last, it was time for Helen to return home to Tuscumbia and show her family what she had learned. At the... (full context)
Chapter 14
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In the winter of 1892, the “bright sky” of Helen’s childhood was darkened by a single cloud. Helen found herself living in doubt, anxiety, and... (full context)
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Helen wrote “The Frost King” at Fern Quarry, the autumn after she had learned how to... (full context)
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When the story was finished, Helen read it aloud to Miss Sullivan, who corrected her pronunciation and praised her for her... (full context)
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Once Helen was back in Boston for school, it came to light that a story very similar... (full context)
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Helen was brought before a “court” composed of teachers and officers of the Perkins Institution, and... (full context)
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...had stayed with many years ago, and their hostess did recall Miss Sullivan having read Helen many books aloud that summer. Helen posits that because she was so young that summer,... (full context)
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During the ordeal, Helen received many messages of support and sympathy, and even got a letter from the author... (full context)
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Helen notes that she had, in much of her early writing, a habit of assimilating things... (full context)
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Helen writes that this “sad experience” has actually done more good than harm in the long... (full context)
Chapter 15
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Helen spent the summer and winter after the “Frost King” incident with her family in Alabama.... (full context)
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In 1893 Helen attended the inauguration of President Cleveland, and also visited Niagara Falls and the World’s Fair.... (full context)
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In the summer of 1893 Helen and Miss Sullivan attended the World’s Fair with Dr. Alexander Graham Bell. Helen’s imagination was... (full context)
Chapter 16
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Before October of 1893, Helen had studied in a loose and relaxed way. She read histories of Greece, Rome, and... (full context)
Chapter 17
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In the summer of 1894, Helen attended a meeting of the American Association to Promote the Teaching of Speech to the... (full context)
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Helen liked German best of all but found French very difficult. Her progress in speech, similarly,... (full context)
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Before she left New York, however, Helen’s “bright days” were darkened by a deep sorrow—her father died in February of 1896. Despite... (full context)
Chapter 18
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In October of 1896, Helen entered the Cambridge School for Young Ladies to prepare for admission to Radcliffe. As a... (full context)
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Once at the Cambridge School, Helen had Miss Sullivan attend classes with her and interpret what her instructors were saying. Her... (full context)
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Helen, however, encountered some setbacks to her education early on. Miss Sullivan could not spell out... (full context)
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Helen progressed well in school, and enjoyed her reading in Latin, German, and English literature. Helen... (full context)
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At Christmastime, Helen’s mother and her sister Mildred came up to Cambridge, and after the holidays Mildred was... (full context)
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Helen took her preliminary examinations for Radcliffe in June and July of 1897. She took exams... (full context)
Chapter 19
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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... (full context)
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Helen eventually acquired a braille writer, which allowed her to keep track of the steps in... (full context)
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The principal of the school believed that Helen was working too hard, and so reduced the number of her lessons despite her protests.... (full context)
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Helen continued her studies with an independent tutor, and took many of her lessons in Wrentham,... (full context)
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In June of 1899, Helen sat her final exams for entrance to Radcliffe over the course of two days. The... (full context)
Chapter 20
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Having finally gained admission to Radcliffe, Helen could enroll whenever she pleased. However, despite her earlier desire to enroll as soon as... (full context)
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Helen remembers her first day of Radcliffe—it was a day she had awaited for many years.... (full context)
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Helen began her studies with eagerness, knowing that in the land of the mind she was... (full context)
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Helen writes that she is frequently asked about how she overcame—and continues to overcome—the “peculiar conditions”... (full context)
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Very few of Helen’s course books are printed for the blind, and so Miss Sullivan spells many of them... (full context)
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This year, her third at Radcliffe, Helen is studying subjects that intrigue her—Elizabethan literature, Shakespeare, and the History of Philosophy. College is... (full context)
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Helen, at times, wishes she could “sweep away” much of what she is expected to learn—she... (full context)
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Helen writes that when her days at Radcliffe were still in her future, “they were encircled... (full context)
Chapter 21
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Helen writes that though she has sketched out the events of her life, she has not... (full context)
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Helen began to read seriously during her first trip to Boston, when she was permitted to... (full context)
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Over the years, Helen has become obsessed with stories about antiquity, especially ancient Greece. She has also discovered the... (full context)
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Helen states simply that literature is her Utopia. In the worlds of her best-loved books, Helen... (full context)
Chapter 22
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Helen writes that she hopes her readers don’t think that reading is the only pleasure she... (full context)
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Helen also enjoys canoeing on moonlit nights. She explains that even though she can’t see the... (full context)
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Last year, as soon as her exams were over, Helen and Miss Sullivan traveled to Wrentham, where they have a little cottage on a lake.... (full context)
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Helen reflects on the visits she has made to see the poor and downtrodden, and she... (full context)
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In the countryside, Helen takes leisurely walks and rides on her and Miss Sullivan’s tandem bicycle. Her dog often... (full context)
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Helen also enjoys taking in art and museums; though she cannot see the paintings or sculptures,... (full context)
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Another of Helen’s great pleasures, though it is a rarer one, is attending the theatre. She likes having... (full context)
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In reflecting on all her pleasures and passions, Helen writes that her life, even with all its limitations, “touches at many points the life... (full context)
Chapter 23
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Helen writes that she wishes she could list the names of all of those who have... (full context)
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Over the years, Helen has often been asked if other people bore her. She does not quite understand the... (full context)
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Helen gives thanks for the friends she has never seen or met—those around the world who... (full context)
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One of the most important friendships in Helen’s life has been that which she has shared with Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, the man... (full context)
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Helen has enjoyed the company of many literary-minded people and famous writers, including Mark Twain. Though... (full context)
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Helen concludes that it is her many friends who have “made the story of [her] life.”... (full context)