Helen Keller (1880–1968) became blind and deaf due to illness before she was two. At seven she began learning language through an alphabet spelled into her hand by her teacher, Anne Sullivan.
On March 3, 1887, Sullivan went to Keller’s home in Alabama and immediately went to work. She began by teaching six-year-old Keller finger spelling, starting with the word ‘doll,’ to help Keller understand the gift of a doll she had brought along. Other words would follow.
In 1890, Keller began speech classes at the Horace Mann School for the Deaf in Boston. She would toil for 25 years to learn to speak so that others could understand her. Keller had mastered several methods of communication, including touch-lip reading, Braille, speech, typing and finger-spelling.
Polly Thompson was her assistant after the death of Sullivan in 1936. Thomson spent 46 years with Keller. Mary Agnes (Polly) Thomson was born in Glasgow, Scotland on February 20, 1885. In 1913, Thomson came to the United States for a long visit to an uncle who worked as a shoe manufacturer in Swampscott, Massachusetts.
On October 20, 1914, Thomson joined the household as secretary, eventually becoming Keller’s companion and interpreter. Polly helped Helen to communicate with the world despite her blindness and deafness.
Thomson and Keller formed a tremendous bond. They traveled together all over the world and spent countless hours at home responding to correspondence. The pair also, however, settled into a mostly quiet life. They were happy to escape to their respective rooms after dinner to spend the night reading their books.
In 1937 Helen Keller received a request to speak before the Hawai’i legislature for the blind of Hawai’i. Helen and Polly were already planning a trip to Japan so, she noted, “I shall comply, as the boat stops there for a day.”
“A long cablegram from Honolulu, where [our boat] is to stop for a day. I am to speak before the legislature, urging them to provide a Bureau of Welfare for the blind of Hawaii and an adequate appropriation, and arrangements are being made for me to give an informal talk to the Honolulu Lions at a luncheon.”
“The welcoming committee at Honolulu sent me a cordial ‘Aloha’ by wireless this afternoon. Three times an inquiry has been cabled from there whether I would permit a broadcast of my speech for the people on seven other islands beside Hawaii, and three times I have signified my consent.”
“Whatever the trouble may be, the nearness of Hawaii is now a thrilling reality. Polly is whetting my impatience to reach that Blest Isle by recalling the blue, blue mountains round Honolulu which she saw years ago on a world cruise.”
“We arrived at Honolulu 6 A.M [April 6, 1937]. I was hardly up when a Braille copy of the program for the day was brought to me. I noted that two extra meetings had been put in between that of the legislature and the Lions’ luncheon. That meant remarks to be made on the spur of the moment.”
“Polly and I were on deck at 7 A.M. A committee headed by Commander Todd, aide to the governor of Hawaii, and including representatives of the blind, the deaf and the Lions, welcomed us.”
“The leis – veritable living jewels to my enraptured touch – were heaped upon me until my dress was completely hidden. From Polly’s enumeration of colors they must have had a rainbow glory-white, red, pink, orange, gold.”
“Their blended fragrances intoxicated me-gardenia, pekokee (very much like the scented wisteria), plumeria, mock orange – so that I forgot the weight and the heat of the flowers on my neck. The music of ‘Aloha Oe’ was in every word spoken, every kindness shown, on my first visit to Honolulu.”
“As we drove through the wide, pleasant streets I knew by smell it was a garden city. … Senators Elsie Wilcox, Mrs Cudingham and WJ Heen escorted Polly and me to the governor’s office in the building which was formerly the royal palace. Governor Poindexter greeted us cordially. I was touched to learn that he had come out of hospital for the occasion.”
“He told me the office used to be Queen Liliuokalani’s bedroom, and that the representatives met downstairs in the sometime throne room. I said I had read her pathetic story as a young girl, and told how I shed tears hearing that the Hawaiians had shut themselves up and wept after her abdication.”
“Again the view from the windows held Polly entranced, and I could imagine how Her Majesty’s eyes must have rested upon their soft, luxuriant greenness with a poet’s intense love.”
“From the office several representatives escorted Polly and me to the House, where we were to speak.” She started her talk, “For the first time, I know the full meaning of Hawaii.” “Speaking through Miss Thomson, Miss Keller voiced a plea for adequate legislative appropriations for work among the blind of the territory.”
“The response was encouraging, and I am sure the blind of Hawaii will obtain the Bureau of Welfare they need. I felt handsomely complimented when the legislature passed a long resolution extending to me a welcome on behalf of the people of Hawaii.”
“It was very interesting to address a legislative body representing widely different groups on the island – Chinese, Japanese, Hawaiians, Portuguese and Anglo-Saxon.”
“I believe they are working out slowly but surely a solution of interracial problems. Hawaii is fortunate in a geographical situation that sets it somewhat apart from the fettering prejudices and rabid nationalism which retard endeavors to achieve permanent peace.”
“As Polly and I were coming out of the palace we were surrounded by a large crowd of schoolboys and girls, and I was asked to say a few words to them from the balcony.”
“Afterwards we were taken to the Territorial School for the Blind and the Deaf, and fresh leis were rained upon me by delegates from the Honolulu Junior League, the Japanese Junior League, the Hospital Social Service, the Chamber of Commerce and the students.”
“Then I learned what those works of art meant – the wreath weavers rising at dawn, picking masses of blossoms and spending hours threading them together petal by petal. What a lavish, colorful welcome to bestow upon a visitor! And I counted between twenty and thirty leis round my neck.”
“I am sorry that the blind and the deaf are taught in the same school. The combination method does not produce the best results. For it imposes a heavier burden upon those who teach two entirely different groups of handicapped, and it is not possible to give each group the special attention it requires.”
“But I was delighted to find the Territorial School in spacious grounds where the students can exercise freely and develop happily, with beauty calling to the eye or the ear in mountain, sea, bird songs and brilliant vegetation.”
“The luncheon with the Honolulu Lions and the Business and Professional Women’s Club took place at Fuller Hall. Before I spoke the orchestra, led by one of my sightless fellows, sent out deep, sweet vibrations that I could feel a long way off.”
“Our charming hostess was the governor’s daughter, Helen Poindexter. His Excellency placed his automobile at our disposal for a ride round Honolulu. It had grown quite hot, and I was glad when we stopped at the pineapple factory, where we enjoyed the coolest, most delicious pineapple juice I had ever tasted.”
“To my regret I found we did not have time to pay our respects to the active volcano, Kilauea, but we drove far enough into the mountains to be overpowered by their magnificence. Polly said they seemed to float in an ocean of unearthly blue, and the rounded green slopes were beyond description.”
“I felt the car zigzag up corkscrew roads between hibiscus hedges, groves of palm and bamboo, pineapple fields and homes built on the summit or near it for the fascinating view in every direction.”
“Mr Palmer, who teaches the deaf, was of the party. Between his wealth of legend, history and Hawaiian names liquid with vowels, Polly’s color-filled fingers and the smells that flooded my nostrils I received a Niagara of impressions which I have not yet formulated.”
“We got out to visit Queen Emma’s summer palace with its wide cool rooms. I was permitted to touch the enormous beds on which the natives sleep, the cradle of the queen’s heir, her sewing table and her mat-weaving loom.”
“Then we walked into the ‘grass hut’ or pavilion where the king sought refuge from the cares of state. It had many windows as well as dry grass between strong, smooth bamboo logs.”
“What romance it suggested – revelers under the tender dreaming evening sky, graceful slender hula dancers, the ukulele sending its wistful notes out over the sea until the stoutest hearts succumbed to the love spell!”
“We drove on to the great Pali, or cliff, where Laihahee towered majestically close by; and the masses of white surf beating against the rock caught a rainbow glory in the sun.”
“On the exposed side a furious blast buffeted the car. Its vibration, which caused the windows to rattle, was startlingly like the roar of Niagara Falls which I have visited several times. I was told that wind had turned over a number of automobiles.”
“As we returned down the mountain a sudden pungent whiff made my heart jump with delight – the fragrance of eucalyptus trees which mingles with all my memories of Los Angeles.”
“Miss Poindexter drove us to the dock. Reluctantly we said good-by to the warmhearted friends who had made the day a sunburst of hospitality and pleasure for us, but their Alohas cheered us with the knowledge that we would be welcome if we came back for a longer stay.”
“Although Polly and I could scarcely stand from fatigue we went on deck for a glimpse of the beautiful harbor and Laihahee. People were waving to the ship, singing, shouting, the very automobiles seemed to honk ‘Aloha!’ until we were a long way from the shore.”
“When we entered our hot stateroom and saw leis piled high on our beds we groaned – in fact, I could have screamed. I was so surfeited with sweet smells and crazy to stretch out, I simply threw the wreaths on the floor. I understood as I had never before the painful effect of a dazzling spectacle too prolonged upon the eyes of those who see.”
“While we were having dinner in bed two boxes were brought in filled with an odorous miscellany of flowers which I was about to send away when a Braille label caught my finger tips. These are some of the lovely flowers that grow in Hawaii. Territorial School For The Deaf And The Blind.”
“I found they had with Aloha thoughtfulness fastened a Braille card to each blossom, giving its name and colors … All night I dreamed that I was being smothered with sweetness, and this morning I ache every time I recall the leis pressing upon my shoulders.”
“With twitching fingers Polly has done her best to spell the endless pen-written Honolulu messages, and with hands quite as tired I have gone over the Braille Alohas. Now I am oppressed by the prospect of thank you letters I am to write to Governor Poindexter, the school and many others ….”