Helen Keller’s autobiography The Story of My Life, written during her time as a student at Radcliffe (the women’s college at Harvard University) reflects both the trials and joys of her childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. After being struck deaf, dumb, and blind by a bout of scarlet fever when she was nineteen months old, young Helen’s childhood was marked by frustration, isolation, and pain, but also by joy, grace, and love. As Helen pushed through the limitations of her disabilities, she discovered the bounty of the natural world, the beauty of the human spirit, and the comfort of the written word. In her memoir, Keller speaks adoringly of nature and literature and demurely but straightforwardly about her incredible accomplishments despite her physical disadvantages, suggesting that determination and perseverance were the qualities that helped her to achieve not just happiness but greatness despite doubt, fear, and others’ low expectations.
After the illness which took her sight and hearing, Helen grew up knowing that she was different from those around her. Nonetheless, she was determined, even as a very young child, to partake in normal activities like exploring the land around her house, helping her mother prepare for Christmas holidays, and interacting with her parents’ friends and visitors. Even though Helen could not see, hear, or effectively express herself, she pushed through her childhood as an active young girl, with a fierce drive toward understanding and participating in the world around her. As Helen grew, her inability to express herself began frustrating her, and she often threw fits and felt held back by “invisible hands.” Her parents, “grieved and perplexed,” feared that no teacher of blind or deaf children would come all the way out to their remote home in Tuscumbia, Alabama to teach Helen. Still, they knew that as long as Helen was trying, they had to try, too. After trips to Baltimore to see a renowned oculist and Washington, D.C to meet with Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, inventor of the telephone, Helen’s parents wrote to Mr. Anagnos, director of the Perkins Institution for the Blind in Boston. The following March, Anne Sullivan was sent to Tuscumbia, and Helen’s education began. When Miss Sullivan arrived, Helen had fallen into a pit of “anger and bitterness” after weeks of feeling as if no one would ever come for her. Thus, upon Miss Sullivan’s arrival, Helen needed to muster the strength to push onward.
Finding a teacher for Helen, it turned out, was only half the battle. As Helen began to study and learn with Miss Sullivan, she realized that her struggles to understand the world around her and assert her own feelings and emotions would be daily and without end. Still, Helen was bolstered by Miss Sullivan’s attention, patience, and praise, and soon became an accomplished student of language and literature. As Helen’s education advanced, so did her goals for herself—she wanted to study at Harvard University. Though this announcement “surprised” her family and friends, she was determined to fulfill her goal, and moved with Miss Sullivan to Cambridge in order to attend a preparatory school. Helen’s instructors at the Cambridge School for Girls had no experience in teaching students with disabilities, and at first Helen struggled mightily to make sure that her special needs were taken care of. She needed Miss Sullivan to spell out all of her required reading books into her hands, translate for her during lectures (which made taking notes impossible), and she required special braille-embossed textbooks which had to be ordered from London and Philadelphia. Nevertheless, Helen persevered in the face of the “ordeal” of her preparatory-school lessons and final examinations, and was eventually admitted to Radcliffe College, “eager to overcome” the obstacles she knew would be waiting for her as she fulfilled her long-held dreams.
Over the years, Helen Keller has come to be known as a hero in the truest sense of the word. Through determination and perseverance, she pushed past the boundaries of her physical capabilities and committed herself daily to furthering her knowledge of the world, herself, and those around her. Her inquisitive nature and desire to achieve honors, distinctions, and milestones well beyond what anyone thought she could achieve led her to great renown not just in the blind or deaf communities, but in society at large and in the American imagination as well.
Determination and Perseverance ThemeTracker
Determination and Perseverance Quotes in The Story of My Life
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.