In The Most Important Day of My Life, Helen Keller narrates how her patient and loving teacher inspired and enabled her to learn despite her disabilities. The essay is a narrative account of her blossoming from a seven year old girl facing the difficulties of learning with her disabilities to someone who is passionate for learning and discovering things. She begins the story of her educational journey on the day she meets her teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, for the first time.
She is just about to be seven years old and has never experienced formal education, largely due to the fact that she is blind, mute and deaf. She describes the anxious moment with luscious detail, capturing her sense of hope and anticipation. Being disabled, Keller thinks of herself as a “great ship” in a “dense fog,” desperate to find light and direction (Keller, 1998, 8). She believes that on that day, the “light of love” begins shining on her life (Keller, 1998, 9). Keller then proceeds to tell the early stages of her education with Sullivan.
She describes Sullivan’s simple yet uncanny method of finger play in which Sullivan spells the word doll after giving the young Keller one. Sullivan’s instruction begins to be more complex as she teaches Keller small words and word association to enable Keller in identifying objects around her. Keller’s blindness makes it difficult for her to appreciate the words associated to things because she has not seen any of it. But Sullivan is patient and persistent.
She thinks of creative ways to help Keller appreciate the things she is learning.
After breaking the doll she got from Sullivan, Keller is taken by her teacher to the garden where she teaches her the meaning of water, a concept Keller could not understand at first. Sullivan’s creativity pays off and Keller’s mind opens up to the rich world of language. She says that the “living word awakened [her] soul” and that her new found ability to name things has given her hope and light in darkness. She begins to see how she is connected to the world (Keller, 1998, 10). The passion for learning ignites her mind and heart, and things around her suddenly “quiver with life” (Keller, 1998, 10).
She develops sentiment and tenderness as a result of discovering her connection to things. Realizing what she has done to the doll, she tries to put back its pieces together. Besides discovering the passion of learning, Keller also becomes an eager student. She grabs every opportunity to learn what she can. Sullivan widens Keller’s perspective by relating her thoughts to nature and teaching her its beauty and wonder. Despite the absence of sight, Keller sees and appreciates the works of nature and feels one with it.
However, Keller learns that nature is not as kind as she thinks. After getting trapped on top of tree in a thunderstorm, Keller learns fear. It takes her a while to regain her trust in nature and the irresistible charm of the mimosa tree to feel once again her connection to nature. As she climbs the tree by herself, her curiosity for “doing something unusual” is revived in her heart (Keller, 1998, 12). Keller realizes that learning language is gradual and for the deaf child, difficult and challenging. But the fruits of discovering language is always rewarding.
As she gains more words, her ideas become more complex and her questions incessant. Upon hearing the word love from Sullivan, Keller encounters abstract ideas and begins to grapple with their meaning. Sullivan’s ingenuity enables Keller to associate the abstract with the concrete as Sullivan connects love with familiar concepts such as clouds, rain and flowers. Keller believes that Sullivan’s treatment of her as a normal child has helped her enormously. As Sullivan augments Keller’s disability through patient repetitions and training, Keller gains confidence to participate in conversations.
She is able to overcome the difficulties of her disability by learning from life itself—a life enriched by her gracious teacher. Sullivan has molded her and fulfilled her potential. She has given her hope and “breathed…love, joy …and meaning” to everything around Keller (Keller, 1998, 14). It is Sullivan’s genius as a teacher, grace for Keller’s disability and vision for the young girl that has widened the depth and breadth of Keller’s mind. Keller describes Sullivan’s vision for her student through an image of nature which she has learned from the great teacher.
From Sullivan, Keller learns that education is beyond the classroom and beyond the routine teaching of skills and concepts. A teacher must instill in his student’s mind the freedom he has from learning because this will enable him to face its challenges. Keller concludes by giving homage to Sullivan, pertaining to her as an extension of herself, a person who is in union with her being. It is impossible for her to have the imagination and intelligence she has without the guidance of Sullivan.