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One hundred and twenty-six years ago Anne Sullivan, forever to be remembered simply as Teacher, gave Helen Keller a voice. You remember the poignant scene immortalized in film with Patty Duke and Anne Bancroft, the look of wonder on Helen's face as she discovers that the movement of Teacher's fingers in her hand spelled water, followed by the frantic need to know the signs for everything in her world.

For most people the story ends there, the savage little girl was given the gift of speech by a rough immigrant orphan. But there is so much more to the story.

With the gift of language a busy eager mind was set free. She moved quickly from the concrete business of naming objects to the infinitely more complex process of exploring the inner spiritual world and the outer world of society and the people who lived in it. She lived a peculiar life of a celebrity and a recluse. She was separated from the world by her sensory limitations, yet in intimate contract with the world through her notoriety as the first deaf blind person to earn a bachelor's degree.

She is mostly remembered today as an educator and an advocate for those who were deaf and those who were blind. She is thought of as an example of courage, determination, and deep abiding friendship.

But in her lifetime there was scandal and condemnation. As a young woman she was accused of plagiarism when she presented a story to a beloved mentor. She said she wrote it just for him. He believed she had copied it or that Teacher had put the story in her head.

She was a devout follower of Swedenborginism, a liberal form of Christianity that many considered to be a cult. She wrote extensively about these beliefs. She was an ardent socialist, joined the International Workers of the World, and was one of the founders of the ACLU. In the period before the two World Wars there were those who suggested that because of her disability she was being duped

If all this information is news to you, you might want to check out the wonderful biography, Helen and Teacher. I love her story because of her defiance: defiance of her disability, defiance of convention, defiance of expectations. But in today's political arena it is also the story of what a progressive America looks like. A time when standing up for those with less was noble. Where the heroes were not those who prospered, but those who championed, and those who overcame.

Originally posted to Tell the Story on Fri Apr 05, 2013 at 10:37 PM PDT.

Also republished by Sex, Body, and Gender.

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