Keller’s ‘The Story Of My Life’
It was in the spring of 1890 that I learned to speak.
The impulse to utter audible sounds had always been
strong within me. I used to make noises, keeping one
hand on my throat while the other hand felt the movements
of my lips. I was pleased with anything that made a
noise and liked to feel the cat purr and the dog bark.
I also liked to keep my hand on a singer's throat, or
on a piano when it was being played. Before I lost my
sight and hearing, I was fast learning to talk, but
after my illness it was found that I had ceased to speak
because I could not hear. I used to sit in my mother's
lap all day long and keep my hands on her face because
it amused me to feel the motions of her lips; and I
moved my lips, too, although I had forgotten what talking
was. My friends say that I laughed and cried naturally,
and for awhile I made many sounds and word-elements,
not because they were a means of communication, but
because the need of exercising my vocal organs was imperative.
There was, however, one word the meaning of which I
still remembered, water. I pronounced it "wa-wa."
Even this became less and less intelligible until the
time when Miss Sullivan began to teach me. I stopped
using it only after I had learned to spell the word
on my fingers.
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. My thoughts would often
rise and beat up like birds against the wind; and I
persisted in using my lips and voice. Friends tried
to discourage this tendency, fearing lest it would lead
to disappointment. But I persisted...
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 all faith.
No deaf child who has earnestly tried to speak the words
which he has never heard--to come out of the prison
of silence, where no tone of love, no song of bird,
no strain of music ever pierces the stillness--can forget
the thrill of surprise, the joy of discovery which came
over him when he uttered his first word. Only such a
one can appreciate the eagerness with which I talked
to my toys, to stones, trees, birds and dumb animals,
or the delight I felt when at my call Mildred ran to
me or my dogs obeyed my commands. It is an unspeakable
boon to me to be able to speak in winged words that
need no interpretation. As I talked, happy thoughts
fluttered up out of my words that might perhaps have
struggled in vain to escape my fingers.
But it must not be supposed that I could really talk
in this short time. I had learned only the elements
of speech. Miss Fuller and Miss Sullivan could understand
me, but most people would not have understood one word
in a hundred. Nor is it true that, after I had learned
these elements, I did the rest of the work myself. But
for Miss Sullivan's genius, untiring perseverance and
devotion, I could not have progressed as far as I have
toward natural speech. In the first place, I laboured
night and day before I could be understood even by my
most intimate friends; in the second place, I needed
Miss Sullivan's assistance constantly in my efforts
to articulate each sound clearly and to combine all
sounds in a thousand ways. Even now she calls my attention
every day to mispronounced words.
All teachers of the deaf know what this means, and only
they can at all appreciate the peculiar difficulties
with which I had to contend. In reading my teacher's
lips I was wholly dependent on my fingers: I had to
use the sense of touch in catching the vibrations of
the throat, the movements of the mouth and the expression
of the face; and often this sense was at fault. In such
cases I was forced to repeat the words or sentences,
sometimes for hours, until I felt the proper ring in
my own voice. 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.