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Helen Keller And Tommy Stringer

Creator: William Ellis (author)
Date: October 1897
Publication: St. Nicholas; An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks
Source: Available at selected libraries


In the public’s mind, Helen Keller’s saintliness was solidified by her efforts to aid Tommy Stringer, a deaf-blind boy left without education in a Pennsylvania almshouse. This article from the children’s magazine, St. Nicholas celebrates her work on behalf of Stringer. Reflecting common practice at the time, author William Ellis portrayed both Stringer and Keller in a sentimental and romantic fashion, suggesting that Keller’s own experience of “affliction” had made her more empathic towards others.

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A LITTLE child lived in black silence. There never was midnight so dense as the darkness that enveloped his mind. Sight and hearing were gone utterly and forever. The child knew absolutely nothing, except that sometimes from somewhere Something put food into his mouth, and moved him about when necessary. His world was limited by as much of his little crib as he could feel with his hands, and by the touch of this Something that cared for his wants.


The merest babe knows the sunlight and in mother's voice and face. Five years had passed over this little boy as he lay on his hospital cot, but he knew less than a month-old infant -- less, indeed, than the least of the beasts of the field. He was completely shut up in a living tomb of flesh, with no communication between himself and the great world about him. Yet within that prison was a healthy brain, open to all the possibilities of life.


Since the terrible sickness that had come to him in infancy, little Tommy Stringer had lain thus among strangers. His mother was dead; his father could not help him. From his birth-place in Washington, Pennsylvania, the helpless sufferer had been removed to a hospital in Allegheny. But no institution wanted this troublesome charge, who would require the constant attention of a teacher. So the almshouse seemed the only haven for Tommy. There at least he could find a shelter.


But it was not to be so. Light was ahead -- the glorious light of knowledge. One who had been similarly shut in by the walls of a triple affliction was to lead Tommy Stringer out into the bright light that she herself enjoyed. It was during the summer of 1890 that the news of Tommy's sad plight came to Helen Keller. The sensitive soul of this ten-year-old girl was deeply affected. She, if no one else, would save the poor boy.


Thenceforth Tommy became the burden of Helen's thought and conversation. She talked about him to her friends; she wrote letter upon letter asking aid for him. At this time occurred a pathetic incident that was the means of turning toward the little blind boy the kindly interest and generous gifts that accomplished his rescue.


The pet and playmate of Helen when she was at home was a beautiful Newfoundland dog. Through a foolish blunder, this animal was shot by a policeman. When the news came to Helen, she had no word of reproach, but simply said, with beautiful charity, "I am sure they never could have done it if they had only known what a dear, good dog 'Lioness' was."


The story of her loss was published widely, and from far and near -- even from across the ocean -- came to Helen offers of money or another dog. The little girl had only one answer to all these kind expressions; she was grateful, but she did not care for another dog to take the place of Lioness. Nevertheless, the gift would be accepted, if the donor so desired, on behalf of a little deaf, dumb, and blind boy for whom she was trying to raise money enough to bring him to Boston to be educated.


In every direction Helen sent this message, always in a specially written personal letter that was marked by the sweet simplicity and remarkable ability of the author. For a long time these letters averaged eight a day, and a marvelously versatile and eloquent little pleader Helen showed herself. She also wrote for newspapers articles addressed to children, as well as general appeals -- ever any two precisely alike. Helen instituted for herself a rigorous course of self-denial (abstinence from soda-water and other prized luxuries), that she might save money for her one great object. The result of all this effort was the securing of sufficient funds to insure Tommy at least two years of education at the Kindergarten for the Blind, Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts.


Thither, on April 10, 1891, came "Baby Tom," as Helen called this five-year-old child. It was a pitiful spectacle that greeted his Boston friends when the boy was brought to the kindergarten. His life had been spent mostly in bed (it was the easiest place to care for him), and he could not walk at all, nor even stand with confidence. Of signs for indicating his wants he had none. He was as a little beast, tearing and destroying his own clothes and all else destructible that was within his reach. His temper and stubbornness were fearful.


To the appalling task of giving the first rays of light to this child, Helen and her teacher set themselves until a permanent instructor could be secured. With almost inconceivable patience and love, kind friends began the education of this untutored mind. The lessons of discipline, regular habits, and obedience had to precede and accompany the teaching of manual speech.


How could this child, who had not the remotest conception of any sort of language, be taught to talk?


The method, simply stated, was this: Every time that bread was given to him the letters "b-r-e-a-d" were formed in the manual alphabet on the boy's own fingers, and also in his hand, by the fingers of his teacher. Again and again this was repeated, thousands of times. It was slow work. The mind had lain too long without knowledge to receive easily the idea of speech. Even after the teachers were sure that Tom understood the definite connection between the word "bread," and those finger-motions, he refused to use his knowledge, because of his strange perversity. At last, after nine months of teaching and waiting, the little fingers voluntarily spelled "b-r-e-a-d," and the beginning had been made.

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