I was briefly obsessed with Helen Keller as a child. Is this still a phase girls go through in elementary school? There was one book in particular that I read over and over, maybe in grade three or four. I don’t know which book it was (plenty to choose from), but it wasn’t this one.
I was taken with Helen’s childhood: the illness that left her blind and deaf, the wild tantrums of her early years, and her sudden awakening to the world on the arrival of her teacher, Anne Sullivan. So taken that I “borrowed” a few phrases from whatever book I was reading and used them in an assignment, and got called out by my teacher. My memory is not as good as Helen’s, so I couldn’t tell you all the particulars, but I remember the phrase I used was something that ended in “she bolted from the room”. My teacher said it sounded like I copied it, which I did, but I was very indignant; isn’t it okay to learn a new way to say something, and use it somewhere else? I remember the feeling to this day.
Imagine my surprise when I learned that Helen Keller was also called out by a teacher for plagiarizing, and that it was a pivotal moment in her life.
Helen wrote a story that she called The Frost King at the age of 12. She proudly showed it to friends and family, and teachers. One of those teachers noticed similarities to a story called The Frost Fairies, which Helen probably read several years earlier. Helen maintains that she didn’t knowingly plagiarize it. Rather than just explain, or even warn Helen about plagiarism, the school authorities put her through the wringer, conducting a full investigation and subjecting her to a “trial” in which she was grilled by teachers and students, and eventually found “guilty”. A beloved teacher shunned Helen after initially supporting her. I felt all the indignation of my much milder experience and then some! Though Helen says this incident was overall a positive, in that it helped her mature, I can’t help thinking it put a damper on her considerable literary talent, and so unnecessarily. A year later, trying to write again for the first time, she is still wary:
I was still excessively scrupulous about everything I wrote. The thought that what I wrote might not be absolutely my own tormented me. No one knew of these fears except my teacher. A strange sensitiveness prevented me from referring to the “Frost King”; and often when an idea flashed out in the course of conversation I would spell softly to her, “I am not sure it is mine.”
The rest of the story of her life, which actually only covers her childhood and very young adulthood, is full of rich imagery and description, and her style, while ornate and old fashioned by today’s standards, is no one’s but her own. I loved entering her world again, and 30+ years later, am still taken with the “miracle” of her childhood, but even more so by her literary talent, both in writing, and in appreciation for literature and language. Her journey though high school and college reminded me of Lenu in Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan novels; a girl with talent and passion for language having to fight for her place in the world of literature.
You can read The Story of My Life on Project Gutenberg. The file also contains her letters, of which I read the earliest, again fascinated with the rapid development of her thinking and expression.