One of the world’s most famous educators was born into an impoverished family and challenging childhood. Anne Sullivan Macy, born Johanna Mansfield Sullivan, was born on April 14, 1866 in Feeding Hills, Agawam, Massachusetts and was illiterate until the age of 7.
Anne was the eldest child of Thomas and Alice (Cloesy) Sullivan who emigrated to the United States from Ireland during the Great Famine. She contracted trachoma at the age of 5, which left her partially blind and without reading or writing skills. A few years later, her mother died of tuberculosis and her father abandoned the family. Together with her younger brother Jimmie, Anne then arrived at a run-down and overcrowded almshouse in Tewksbury, Massachusetts, where her brother was to die from tuberculosis a few months later.
These circumstances would have been enough to crush any spirit - but not Anne’s. In fact, her troubled journey had made her more determined, brave and indominable. Alone after a hellish 4 years at the house and with her vision deteriorating, Anne beseeched Franklin Benjamin Sanborn, the State Inspector of Charities that visited the almshouse, to allow her to be admitted to the Perkins School for the Blind. In October 1880, her wish was granted and she began her studies there.
Anne’s first years at Perkins were humiliating. She was ill equipped for modern life and healthy relationships due to a lack of social experiences. Despite her rebellious nature and constant clashes with staff and students, she managed to connect with a few teachers to make progress with her learning. She befriended and learned the manual alphabet from Laura Bridgman, the very first blind and deaf graduate of Perkins.
In June 1886, 14 years after arriving at the almshouse as an illiterate child, Anne – now 20 - became valedictorian of her class. In her graduation speech, she told her classmates,” Duty bids us go forth into active life. Let us go cheerfully, hopefully, and earnestly, and set ourselves to find our especial part. When we have found it, willingly and faithfully perform it; for every obstacle we overcome, every success we achieve tends to bring man closer to God and make life more as He would have it."
The summer following Sullivan's graduation, the director of Perkins, Michael Anagnos, was contacted by Arthur Keller, who was in search of a teacher for his 7-year-old blind and deaf daughter Helen. Anne began her work on March 3, 1887 at the Kellers' home in Tuscumbia, Alabama. Her arrival was memorable: she quickly connected with Helen but argued with Helen's parents about the Civil War and over the fact that they used to own slaves. Anne evolved from teacher, to governess, and finally to companion and friend to Helen Keller.
Anne’s initial curriculum involved a strict schedule with constant introduction of new vocabulary words by spelling each word out into Helen's palm, however, she quickly changed her style and began to teach Helen vocabulary based on the child’s own interests. In 6 months this method proved to be working, and Anne strongly encouraged Helen's parents to send her to the Perkins School, where she could have an appropriate education.
After Helen graduated from Perkins, she went on to get a degree from Radcliffe College. Thus, began Helen’s life as a public symbol, where among such roles as founding the ACLU, she became an advocate for Perkins, helping to increase its funding and making it the most famous and sought-after school for the blind in the country.
Meanwhile, Anne married Harvard University instructor and literary critic John Albert Macy (1877–1932), who had helped Keller with her publications. The marriage was short lived however, and within a few years the relationship began to disintegrate. By 1914, they separated and Anne never remarried.
Though known to the world as the teacher to Helen Keller, Anne Sullivan was much more than that. Although a mentor and companion to one of the greatest voices of our era, Anne was also brilliant and intuitive in her own right. She died on October 20, 1936 having overcome her humble birth, her physical limitations, her bouts of depression, her failed marriage, her fears and perceived inferiority to leave a legacy that continues to influence us today.
While Anne showed the world how triumph over diversity can leave a lasting imprint, we’re challenged to ask ourselves: what limitations have we overcome in our own lives? How can we use those adversities as strengths rather than perceive them as weaknesses? What adversities do I have yet to overcome? The answers to these questions can lead us on a path of greatness: if not for ourselves than for the betterment of humanity.