Monday, August 4, 2014

Singing Lessons: The Life of Helen Keller

Fourteen-year-old Helen Keller bustled through Grand Central Station. Although she could not hear or see, she could sense her surroundings. All the feelings and smells were new–rough edges and big city fumes.

Her trusted teacher, Annie Sullivan, helped her stumble through the crowd. Only a few years ago, Annie taught Helen to speak through sign language. Instead of spoken words, she used hand signals to communicate. Like Jacob wrestled with the angel in the Bible, Annie fought with Helen for days. Annie would not give up until Helen received the blessing of communication.

Helen spelled her first word, W-A-T-E-R, to Annie at the pump in her Alabama yard. After learning the alphabet for sign language and Braille, Helen wanted to learn to talk. Although her speaking voice appeared miraculously, it sounded harsh and forced. So, Helen decided to study at The Wright-Humason School in New York.

More than any class at the school, singing lessons would help Helen learn to talk better. Everyone at church sings Psalms and hymns. Helen was always nervous to make a noise. Even with a joyful noise, she was too afraid that the congregation would make fun of her. Singing lessons would be the most intimidating of all Helen’s subjects at school, but they would also be the most rewarding if she could master the subject.

At the beginning of each singing lesson, Helen sat at the piano and felt its vibrations. She put her cheek on the soundboard to sense its rhythm and pressed the pedals. She embraced the piano as a friend and sensed its music, hoping to share in its beauty. At every lesson, her teacher, Dr. Thomas Humason, directed Helen’s breathing. Although she gave her best effort, she made very little progress. She was so disappointed. She kept her hands on Dr. Humason’s throat or on the piano as he played. Helen became confused easily, mistaking one note for another. She needed to learn better control of vowel and consonant sounds. 

The young student struggled to breathe from deep in her stomach, and not her chest. She longed to sing and had heard about opera singers who sounded like bluebirds. Helen wondered what the call of an eagle sounded like and tried to mimic it. Despite much practice, she was embarrassed and unsure she wanted to continue. 

As Helen struggled with her singing lessons, Annie became friends with other professors. She studied new techniques to help Helen learn more clever ways of speaking. Instead of just placing her hands on Dr. Humason’s throat, Helen placed them on his lips. Although her lip-reading improved, she still could not understand rapid speech. Helen wanted so much to be able to talk and sing like other people. Some days, she felt trapped in her own body, limited by her simple sign language. 

In between her singing lessons, Helen’s teachers took her on fields trips for inspiration. Helen visited the symphony, where she could feel the music through her feet. The orchestra welled up in her soul, and she felt lighter than air. On Washington’s birthday, Helen’s class went to a dog show at Madison Square Garden. The barking sounds of the dogs felt almost the same as the orchestra to Helen. She found the bulldogs the most fascinating with their unique bark. 

After the dog show, Dr. Humason took Helen to the Metropolitan Club. Helen felt as though she did not fit in with the wealthy New York crowd. She found it hard to communicate with them, so she sat next to her friend: the piano. Instead of talking to the crowd, she enjoyed the piano’s pulse and rhythm. On the way back to the school, Helen asked Dr. Humason if she could take piano lessons. Helen thought that the piano lessons would help her progress in singing. Before each singing lesson, Helen sat at the school’s piano and hummed notes. She tried to feel the tone from the piano so that it would come through her voice. As she pounded on the piano in frustration, she imagined writing wonderful songs. 

One Saturday, her teachers planned a special trip for the entire class: A visit to Bedloe’s Island to see Bartholdi’s Statute of Liberty–a free woman. Liberty was a gigantic figure in Greek draperies that held a torch in her right hand. Although Helen could not see Liberty, just the idea of her gave Helen motivation. She put one foot after the other up the staircase of Lady Liberty. As she walked straight to the top, Helen was more determined than ever to sing clearly. Even though Helen wanted other people to approve of her voice, as long as Helen liked her own singing, it did not matter what anyone else thought. When she reached the top of the stairs, Helen felt the sun on her face. As the wind blew through her hair, she embraced the freedom to sing.

Even though Helen could not speak the same way everyone else did, it was all right, and she was good enough. She was free, just like Lady Liberty. At every singing lesson from then on, Helen imagined that she had a beautiful voice. No one would judge her anymore; the freedom of singing was enough. 


Copyright 2014 Jennifer Waters

Inspired by my fifth grade English teacher Miss Miller, where I studied about Helen Keller and learned the sign language alphabet.

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