August/September 1978 | Volume 29, Issue 5
By the time Charles Dickens came to America in 1842 he was already the most popular writer of his day, and when he landed in Boston he was offered no end of things to do. None of them, however, interested him as much as his visit to a thirteen-year-old girl. “Her face was radiant with intelligence and pleasure,” he wrote. “Her dress, arranged by herself, was a pattern of neatness and simplicity … her writing book was on the desk she leaned upon.… A doll she had dressed lay near.…” When Dickens picked up the doll, he found a green ribbon wrapped around its eyes, a miniature of the one worn by the girl herself. Her name was Laura Bridgman, and she was a blind deaf-mute.
She had once lived in a sort of cell, said Dickens, “impervious to any ray of light, or particle of sound; with her poor white hand peeping through a chink in the wall, beckoning to some good man for help.… Long before I looked upon her the help had come.”
It had come from Samuel Gridley Howe, an able, energetic, imaginative man, who, after a vigorous early career devoted to helping drive the Turks out of Greece, had returned to Boston to found the Perkins Institution, a school for blind children. Howe did so well helping his charges that he became interested in teaching the deaf-blind. According to the wisdom of the day, all that could be done for such people was to feed them; they could not be educated. Nevertheless, Howe determined to try and began to seek a suitable subject. In 1837 he got word of Laura Bridgman.
Laura had been born near Hanover, New Hampshire, in 1829 to the common world of light and sound, but when she was two years old scarlet fever burned away her sight, her hearing, and most of her senses of smell and taste. It took her two years to regain her strength and then, trapped in her black and silent world, she gradually became more and more difficult to control. By the time she was seven, her father could command her obedience only by stamping hard on the floor near her. When Howe appeared at Laura’s home, the girl’s parents were happy to have him take her in hand.
At the Perkins Institution, Howe left her alone for two weeks, letting her get acquainted with her new companions, and then started her education. As he saw it, he had two choices; he could help her expand the natural language of gestures she had already begun to develop, or he could attempt the far more difficult task of teaching her the alphabet, thereby giving her some real understanding of the world she could never see. He decided on the latter course.
He took common objects—a spoon, a fork, a key—labeled them with raised letters, and let her handle them. Then he gave her detached labels bearing the same words. After a while, she learned to attach the proper labels to the objects. The next step was to give her individual letters and have her spell out words. She made progress, but it was slow going, and oddly disappointing: “The process,” said Howe, “[was] mechanical, and the success about as great as teaching a very knowing dog a variety of tricks.”
When the breakthrough finally came, it came suddenly: “She perceived that here was a way by which she could make herself up a sign of anything that was in her own mind, and show it to another mind; and at once her countenance lighted up with a human expression: it was no longer a dog or parrot: it was an immortal spirit, eagerly seizing upon a new link of union with other spirits!”
That moment was the signal triumph of Howe’s career. Knowing, now, that a true intelligence stirred behind Laura’s dead eyes, he was elated to discover the breadth of her curiosity. She became fascinated by the concept of colorsshe developed a curious aversion to red—and was intrigued by geography, though she occasionally gave way to despair as she began to grasp how big and various a place the world was. Once, using what she called “finger talking,” she asked her instructor, “Are you not very tired of living so many years?” Eventually she grew sophisticated enough to be an ardent Free Soil advocate.
Within two years of her arrival at the school, she began her first letter: “Laura will write letter to mother. …” She learned to knit, crochet, and sew, and developed a lively and affectionate personality that charmed the visitors who came to see her.
They came in the hundreds, for by this time Laura and her mentor had become famous. Howe had published reports on her progress from the beginning, and the word had spread throughout Europe and America. Not only did Laura represent an extraordinary pedagogical achievement, she also stood for something her era took very seriously indeed—the invincibility of the human spirit. “The good little girl,” Thomas Carlyle wrote Howe from England, “one loves her to the very heart.… That little question of hers, ‘Do horses sit up late?’ stirs us to laughter, to tears … and probably to as kind a mood as human speech alone can awaken in a human heart.”
Laura came to the end of her formal education when she was twenty, but she stayed at the Perkins Institution for the rest of her life. She knitted, made beds, cleaned, and occasionally taught sewing—very strictly—to the pupils. She became a busy correspondent, and in her later years wrote poetrysimple, devout verse filled with images of darkness and light:
Joy is a blazing flame, Darkness is frosty. A good sleep is a white curtain, A bad sleep is a black curtain.
She died of pneumonia at the age of sixty. “It has been better for her generation,” Howe had said, “that she lived in it.” And it has been better for the generations that followed. When Anne Sullivan, herself a graduate of the Perkins Institution, undertook to educate a wild little girl named Helen Keller, she set out knowing that the road ahead had been traveled before.