Thoughts + Articles

Inspiration From a Cage to the Queen of England

How could the legacy of a young girl, who was locked in a cage, eventually create a legacy that reached the Queen of England? You have undoubtedly heard of Helen Keller, but the woman who helped pave the way for Helen to leave her legacy remains largely unknown…until now. 

“Little Annie” Sullivan’s was the oldest of 5 children from a poor Irish family. Her father was unskilled, illiterate, and an alcoholic. Two of her siblings died in infancy. Her Mom had Tuberculosis and after a fall walked with crutches. When Annie was 5 years old, she contracted a bacterial eye infection, which left her half blind. Her Mother died when she was 8, and two of her younger siblings were sent to live with relatives.

 Little Annie was left to take care of her father. Two years later her younger brother Jimmie was sent back from the relatives he was staying with. Jimmie had a Tubercular hip, (a disease so painful, patients often wake up crying due to muscles contracting; rubbing two diseased bones together). He and Little Annie were sent to the Tewksbury Almshouse in Massachusetts. This mental institution was known as a dirty, overcrowded place, filled with those who society would rather lock away instead of helping them to heal.

Annie and Jimmie shared a tiny space in the Almshouse, and Jimmie died three months later. She was “heartbroken, frightened, and alone. She became incorrigible, no one could do anything with her. The medical personnel could not examine her, as she would spit and scratch them.” 

She was placed her in a cage “in the dungeon for the hopelessly insane. When people came to Little Annie’s cage she would sometimes attack the person or ignore them.” (Zig Ziglar, motivational expert and author’s part of Annie’s story begins.)

One evening, “an elderly nurse, who believed there was hope for all of God’s creatures, and she would frequently eat her lunch at the foot of Annie’s cage. The elderly nurse spoke to her encouraging motivational words showing she cared about Little Annie. One day the elderly nurse brought brownies to the dungeon and left them outside the little girl’s cage. The next day when the old nurse returned, the brownies were gone.”

“The nurse believed that everyone needed to feel hope and love, and had a desire to communicate that to Little Annie. Over time the doctors saw positive changes in Little Annie and she was moved upstairs.” (Zig Ziglar)

The nurse may have been the first adult to show the orphan a glimmer of hope and optimism.  Little Annie had impaired eyesight and at “14 years of age could not read or write.” When the inspectors came to inspect the Tewksbury Almshouse Mental Institution, Little Annie mustered all the courage she possessed, and declared to one of the inspectors “I want to go to school.” 

She was sent to Perkins Institute for the Blind on Oct. 7, 1880 where she was taught to read and write the manual alphabet.

Little Annie had never owned a toothbrush, hairbrush, nightgown, or anything else. Most of the other girls at Perkins were the sheltered daughters of wealthy merchants or farmers. Many of the children made fun of “Little Annie’s rough manners and ignorance and some of her teachers were impatient and unsympathetic to her.”

Annie Sullivan remembered her early years at Perkins feeling humiliated about her shortcomings and feeling ashamed and angry. She was determined to excel at her studies.

Annie’s life at Perkins became easier after the first two years. (Think about the dedication Annie possessed…two years of enduring something unpleasant so she could pursue her goal). 

Connecting with teachers and her house mother, Mrs. Sophia Hopkins:

She “connected with several of the teachers who encouraged and challenged her.  Mrs. Sophia Hopkins, Annie’s housemother, took Annie under her wing and treated her like a daughter. During school vacations, Annie spent time with Mrs. Hopkins at her Cape Cod home. Annie had another surgery on her eyes and it improved her vision dramatically so she could see well enough to read print.”

Annie befriending Laura Bridgman:

Annie “befriended Laura Bridgman, who had been the first deaf and blind person to learn a language. Annie learned the manual alphabet from her, and frequently chatted and read the newspaper to the much older woman. Bridgman could be very demanding, but Sullivan seemed to have more patience with her than many of the other students.”

Excelling academically at Perkins:

Anne “learned to excel academically at Perkins but she did not conform. She frequently broke rules; her quick temper and sharp tongue brought her close to expulsion on more than one occasion. She might not have made it to graduation without the intercessions of those few teachers and staff who were close to her” and knew her true potential.

Annie Sullivan graduated June 1886 as Valedictorian. She charged her classmates and herself with these words: “Fellow-graduates: duty bids us go forth into active life. Let us go cheerfully, hopefully and earnestly, and set ourselves to find our special part. When we have found it, willingly and faithfully perform it….”

Annie after graduation was fearful and uncertain of her future. She had no family to go back to, did not want “to return to Tewksbury and had no qualifications for employment. Fate intervened.”  

Annie’s Opportunity:

Captain Keller of Alabama “wrote to Perkins Director Michael Anagnos, asking him to recommend a teacher for his young daughter Helen, who had been deaf and blind since the age of 19 months. ( scarlet fever or meningitis) Helen’s mother had read about Laura Bridgman’s education at Perkins in Charles Dickens’ American Notes and began to hope that her own daughter could be reached.”

Perkins Director Michael Anagnos “admired Sullivan’s intelligence and indomitable determination. He immediately thought of her as the best candidate to teach the seven-year-old girl.”

Ms. Sullivan, although “intimidated by the challenge, she knew this was just the opportunity she needed. She spent the next few months studying the reports of Laura Bridgman’s education by Howe and her other teachers. In March of 1887 she left for Tuscumbia, Alabama, to begin a new chapter in her life.”

Teaching Methods:

“The methods Sullivan used when she began teaching Helen were very much like those Dr. Howe employed with Laura Bridgman. They followed a strict schedule and new vocabulary words were introduced in a formal lesson. It was not long before Sullivan realized that the rigid routine did not suit her exuberant and spontaneous young pupil. Never one to be limited by rules, Sullivan abandoned the prescribed schedule and shifted the focus of her teaching.”

Sullivan enters Helen’s World: “Child Centered Method”

“Sullivan decided to enter Helen’s world, follow her interests and add language and vocabulary to those activities. She observed that Helen’s infant cousin learned language by being spoken to, and talked to the girl constantly by fingerspelling into her hand.” 

In Annie Sullivan’s letters to Mrs. Hopkins, she discussed the reasons for her change in approach:

“I am convinced that the time spent by the teacher in digging out of the child what she has put into him, for the sake of satisfying herself that it has taken root, is so much time thrown away. It’s much better, I think, to assume the child is doing his part, and that the seed you have sown will bear fruit in due time. It’s only fair to the child, anyhow, and it saves you unnecessary trouble.”

“Helen flourished under Sullivan’s creative approach to teaching, and her thirst for information seemed unquenchable. Remarkably, within six months she learned 575 words, multiplication tables as high as five and the Braille system. Although Sullivan was a brilliant and intuitive teacher who had moved well beyond earlier rigid prescriptive teaching methods, she continued to seek and receive support and advice from Anagnos and others at Perkins.” 

When the Queen of England, many years later, honored Helen Keller with England’s highest honor, the Queen asked her, “How do you account for your remarkable accomplishments in life? How do you explain that even though you were both deaf and blind, you were able to accomplish so much?”

Helen Keller said, “had it not been for Anne Sullivan, Little Annie, the name Helen Keller would have remained unknown.”

Zig Ziglar says “Anne Sullivan saw Helen Keller as one of “God’s very special people.” She treated her as she saw her, loved her, disciplined her, played, prayed, pushed and worked with her until the flickering candle that was her life became a beacon “lighting the burdens of others.”

“Helen Keller influenced millions of people after her own life was touched by Little Annie.” 

Mark Twain was the first person to call Sullivan a ‘miracle-worker’. “The famous author was annoyed that people wanted to meet Keller but ignored her extraordinary teacher.”

Side Note:

Helen Keller said, “The most important day I remember in all my life is the one on which my teacher, Anne Mansfield Sullivan, came to me. I am filled with wonder when I consider the immeasurable contrasts between the two lives which it connects. It was the third of March, 1887, three months before I was seven years old.”

Just like Annie Sullivan and Helen Keller, every person needs love and hope communicated to them. Connecting with a knowledgeable person can ignite and empower you to the next level.

 Madeline Frank, Ph.D., is an Best Selling Author, speaker, business owner, teacher, concert artist, and parent. She helps businesses and organizations “Tune Up their Business”. Her observations show you the blue prints necessary to improve and keep your business successful. Her latest book “Leadership On A Shoestring Budget” is available everywhere books are sold. If you need a virtual speaker contact Madeline at:

This entry was posted on Monday, November 6th, 2023 at 12:58 am and is filed under Articles. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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