Keller’s story has timeless lessons

Published 11:59 pm Friday, July 24, 2009

In October, a bronze likeness of Alabama-native Helen Keller at age 7 will be unveiled in the U.S. Capitol complex.

The statue, funded by individual and corporate donations, portrays Keller as a child at the water pump, an image made famous by the movie of her life story, “The Miracle Worker.” It was at the water pump that young Helen, left deaf and blind by a childhood illness, first made the connection between the words being signed in her hand and the things those words identified.

It is a powerful scene in a powerful story. Earlier this summer, niece Sarah, 9, nephew Christopher, 5, and I had the opportunity to attend Tuscumbia’s annual Helen Keller Festival.

At first, I worried that they were too young to “get” the lesson that one can overcome most anything. Then I recalled that their maternal grandparents are deaf as a result of childhood illnesses and we were off.

We had the opportunity to tour Ivey Green, the birthplace of our heroine, before seeing the local production of “The Miracle Worker,” in the backyard.

Today, it seems normal that a person with physical challenges can overcome them. Visiting Ivey Green and seeing the play reminds us what it must have been like to be the mother of a small child in the 1880s with no tools for treating a burning fever. When the actress portraying Anne Sullivan, Helen’s teacher, recounts what it was like to be placed in a sanitarium as a small child, you can actually feel Helen’s parents’ fears for her future.

Even in the heat of a June evening with the company of a restless 5-year-old, the scene at the pump moved me to tears. How rewarding a moment it must have been for Anne Sullivan when Helen finally grasped words.

Helen later became the first deaf and blind person to earn a bachelor of arts degree. She published a number of books, campaigned for women’s rights, pushed for opportunities for the disabled, and provided inspiration to American soldiers wounded in wars.

Each state can memorialize two of its most significant residents in the national Statuary Hall collection in the nation’s Capitol. At present, Alabama honors the Confederate and U.S. military leader Joseph Wheeler, who also served in Congress, and 19th-century educator Jabez Lamar Monroe Curry. Ironically, both men were natives of Georgia, and Curry at one time was a staff aide to Wheeler.

For decades the selections were irreversible. Congress changed that law in 2002. When Keller’s statue replaces Curry’s this fall, his will be moved to Samford University in Birmingham.

Here’s hoping the new statue will prompt others to read or see Helen’s story, and that all of us will continue to be inspired by her accomplishments.