March 3, 1887. Tuscumbia, Alabama. Six-year-old Helen Keller meets the teacher that will bring her out of darkness into light by introducing her to language.
Little Helen lives in a world of smell, taste, touch, deprived of sight and sound by an illness at age nineteen months.
Helen remembers the home of her childhood before the sickness, the small two-room house that looks like an arbor from the garden. The house is covered with vines, climbing roses, and honeysuckle. The little porch is cloaked in a screen of yellow roses and Southern smilex. Bees and hummingbirds hover and hum.
She remembers the scents and textures of the house and garden after going blind and deaf: the perfume of the violets and lilies, the cool of leaves and grass as she buries her face in them, the soft touch of blossoms on the tumble-down vines covering the summer-house at the far end of the garden. The fragrance of dew-washed flowers mists the air, rising from the garden of roses, butterfly lilies, trailing clematis, and drooping jessamine.
But even the vast tactile landscape and deluge of olfactory sensation feels clouded with a thick emotional black.
Helen feels many things.
Jealousy–when her sister is born and Helen is no longer her mother’s sole darling.
Glee–when she locks her mother in a room and feels the vibrations of her banging and pounding on the door for three hours.
Terror–when her dress catches fire and burns her hands before the nurse can rescue her.
Impatience–when she cannot understand the meaning of the letters that she feels her teacher, Miss Sullivan, tracing onto her open palms with the tip of a finger.
Frustration–Helen smashes a doll to the ground.
Satisfied delight–when she feels the fragments of the broken doll at her feet.
But she feels no sorrow or regret at the outburst. In the still, dark world in which I lived there was no strong sentiment or tenderness.
Little Helen feels, at times, something akin to regret. After the tantrums, kicking and screaming wildly at her nurse, Ella, Helen knows that she has hurt her. But the feeling never sticks long enough to keep her from lashing out again when she doesn’t get what she wants.
Empathy escapes little Helen, but she is on the verge of revelation, on the brink of generativity.
She communicates basic desires with gestures, but lacks the building blocks of complex language to organize her sensations and develop a cognitive world that recognizes its cooperation with other conscious beings.
There aren’t two worlds, but to Helen there are: the interior world of her immediate sensations and the silent, dark, exterior where everyone else lives, a world she doesn’t know. Her world lacks the strong, animal sense of time cognized by the human brain, and the flowering of cultivated memory, the ability to link one event or sensation to others.
Helen is conscious, waking, but has only a dim sense of her relationship to other waking things.
Miss Sullivan brings Helen her hat, a signal: they are going outside into the warm sunshine. Helen hops and skips with pleasure.
The teacher and student walk down to the well-house, drawn by honeysuckle scent. The teacher sees the water spout in the well-house and decides to try again. She has tried before to teach Helen the naming of things, tracing letters into her palms and giving her the corresponding object: “d-o-l-l” paired with the pre-shattered doll. She’s tried to teach her “m-u-g” and “w-a-t-e-r” that day already, but Helen keeps conflating the two.
But here they come again to the water, to that cool, strong god, tamed and coursing from a spigit. The teacher grabs one of Helen’s hands and pulls it beneath the spout gushing with cool deity. Into her other hand, she spells “w-a-t-e-r.” Slow at first, then rapidly.
Helen stands still, attention fixed on the motion of her teacher’s fingers.
Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as of something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!
The water had the look of water that is looked at.
Thus I came out of Egypt and stood before Sinai, a power divine touched my spirit and gave it sight, so that I beheld many wonders. And from that sacred mountain I heard a voice which said, “Knowledge is love and light is vision.”
The girl had the look of a girl that looks.