Annie Sullivan: The Teacher Who Believed She Could

by Sophia Daluraya from San Diego, California in United States

123433Annie Sullivanperkins.orgAnyone who grew up surrounded by society’s version of a hero would say that heroes have superpowers and supernatural abilities. Captain America and Wonder Woman are only two out of hundreds that come to mind when one thinks of a hero. They are the ones that fight crime and save the whole world from total annihilation. However, there are many types of heroes that do not have abnormal powers. Heroes can be an ordinary person who has the strength to defy odds, the tenacity to never give up, and the compassion to help others in need. One such example of this type of hero is Annie Sullivan, the teacher and lifelong friend of Helen Keller. Born on April 14, 1866 in Feeding Hills, Massachusetts, Annie Sullivan was born to Irish immigrant parents, Alice and Thomas Sullivan. Annie, a nickname derived from her given name, Johanna, was the oldest of five children, two of which had died during infancy. At age five, Sullivan contracted Trachoma, an eye disease that would leave her blind if not treated and her brother, Jimmie, was also disabled with a Tubercular hip. To make matters worse, her mother had passed away from Tuberculosis when she was eight and her father soon abandoned her siblings and her following her mother’s death. Left with no parents or family who would take them in, Annie and Jimmie were sent to live at the Tewksbury Almshouse, a deplorable establishment that was not fit for any child her age. Shortly after they arrived, Sullivan faced another hardship when her brother soon died from diseases and bacteria spread widely throughout the almshouse. Although times were rough at the almshouse, Annie became a strong, independent, and morally driven woman who believed nothing could stop her. For the years that passed, Annie fought for an education and a suitable occupation when all odds were against her. Sullivan was a woman who had no social status and was half-blind, but she persevered despite these challenges. She did not let anyone tell her what she could or could not do and that led her to her legacy of breaking the stereotypes of the disabled. Sullivan did this by teaching blind and deaf Helen Keller how to communicate with others. However, Keller was not just her student, but a person who Annie felt much compassion towards. This motherly love towards Keller awakened Sullivan’s determination for change. Later, she traveled around the nation with Keller to help the disabled receive treatment and financial support. Unfortunately, like all good stories, all good lives come to an end. Annie Sullivan passed away from heart failure on October 20, 1936 in Forest Hills, New York. However, throughout her life, she displayed immense mental strength to overcome the hardships in her life and she used a great amount of effort to help others who felt oppressed and discriminated against. Annie Sullivan is not just the teacher of Helen Keller, as many remember her, but an admirable hero because she has the determination and compassion to make a change in stereotypes and she has the strength to overcome her dark and difficult past.

123451Sullivan with Helen Kelleraleteia.orgBeing a woman during the 1800’s, let alone a disabled one at that, made life very difficult for Annie Sullivan. Because of the restricting stereotypes she lived in, Sullivan had to work extremely hard to become successful in a world dominated by men. Despite all these difficulties, Sullivan had the determination to succeed and along the way, she helped others like her do the same as well. One of Sullivan’s greatest achievements to break stereotypes against the blind was her work with Helen Keller, a pupil she taught who had lost her sense of sight and hearing when she was young. While Keller already was blind and deaf, she also had no grasp of respect or manners towards Sullivan when she first met the teacher: “She found Keller to be a spoiled and temperamental child, subject to tantrums. After a short time, Sullivan and her student moved into a garden house on the Keller property where the strong-willed teacher and student began their lifetime of interdependence” (Encyclopedia of World Biography). Even though Sullivan wanted to become someone of a high status after her school career, she was still willing to help teach young Helen Keller as a governess. By helping Helen learn how to read, write, and communicate, Sullivan broke the stereotypes of blind people with her pupil’s immense success. From the beginning of Keller’s schooling, there was the challenge of teaching the blind and deaf girl to communicate, but Sullivan also had to teach young Keller basic manners on top of that. However, Sullivan wanted to prove that even though people were blind, they were worth something. She used her extreme determination to have faith in Keller and stick by her side even though she was a daunting task with her disabilities and her lack of manners. Through the years, Keller succeeded and became widely famous through her ability to overcome her disabilities and inspire others, but this would not have been possible if Annie Sullivan was not there to push her to succeed and have determination and faith that Helen could achieve her seemingly unattainable goal at the time. The compassion she found for the disabled after she worked with the girl led to the pair leading tours to help inspire the blind. Keller, now grown up and fully capable of communicating with others, traveled with Sullivan around the country to spread awareness to others about the feats the disabled could accomplish if given the chance: “In 1924, Sullivan rallied and accompanied Keller on a series of fundraising tours for the new American Foundation for the Blind” (Bailey). Even as Sullivan got older, she still felt passion towards changing the perception of society’s views of blind people. With Keller by her side, both of them went on countless tours to help raise funds and awareness for the blind. Annie and Helen both felt very passionate about the cause because throughout these tours, they would always be in need of money so that they could use it to go on more of them to help support the blind. With these tours, Annie and Helen showed others that they could become something and achieve their goals if they believed they could. Determination was a key part in Sullivan’s success. With her mindset, she managed to start with one pupil, teach her what was thought to be impossible, and move onto teaching the whole world to show that disabled people can do anything they set their minds to. With her help to spread funds and awareness, Sullivan is a hero for all the women and disabled that follow after her.

123467Tewksbury Almshouse where Sullivan grew upafb.orgAnnie Sullivan’s life was not easy. She faced devastating hardships through lost loved ones and opportunities in her early childhood. However, Annie’s immense mental strength elevated her out of the darkness her past built for her and she used this attribute to leave behind the haunting pit of poverty she once resided in. Sullivan’s early childhood was plagued with devastating hardships: “After her mother's death, Sullivan's two surviving siblings went to live with relatives. Sullivan was left to care for her father, an illiterate, unskilled, and abusive man. Two years later, Sullivan and her brother, Jimmie, were sent to live in the state poorhouse in Tewksbury--a filthy, overcrowded home where the children were exposed to people with serious mental and physical ailments. Jimmie Sullivan, who had a tubercular hip, died six months later, leaving Sullivan alone” (Encyclopedia of World Biography). Throughout Sullivan’s childhood, she faced problems one after another. Her mother died, her father abandoned her, and her siblings were ripped apart because of health issues. The only person Sullivan had left, whom she loved immensely at the time, was her brother, Jimmie, but he shortly died as well when the two were brought to the Tewksbury Almshouse. Following her brother’s death, Sullivan spent the next four years trapped in the deplorable almshouse with nowhere to go. No one was there to support her financially and emotionally, so there was a slim chance that she could actually obtain the education she wanted. However, despite these challenges, Sullivan had the strength to chase after what she wanted: “...Sanborn arrived...Annie...pursued his group from ward to ward...At the very last possible moment, not knowing which blurry body was his, she hurled herself forward into the group of well-dressed men and women. ‘Mr. Sanborn, Mr. Sanborn, I want to go to school’” (Nielson)! With her fierce determination and strength, she did not let the opportunity to go to school pass her by. Her hard work and resilience to move on from her past paid off when she was accepted into Perkins School for the Blind with the help of inspector, Frank B. Sanborn. Around the time Sullivan’s mother passed away, she also contracted the eye disease, Trachoma: “Sullivan's situation worsened when, at the age of five, she was afflicted with trachoma, an infectious eye disease that steadily caused her sight to deteriorate” (Encyclopedia of World Biography). One reason why Annie Sullivan had so much sympathy for the other disabled people in the world was because she went through the physical and emotional pain they suffered through because of their disabilities. Eyesight is something most people take for granted and since she was five, Sullivan had physical problems and difficulty with reading because of the disease she contracted. At that point, most would have given up on her, but Sullivan was adamant on receiving an education. For the years that followed, Annie had the bravery and resilience to go through multiple eye surgeries that could end with disastrous consequences. Annie could have let her disability stop her, but she had the strength to continue through the dangerous surgeries in order for her to overcome this obstacle and get the education she dreamed of. Annie Sullivan’s life was full of extreme hardships that could have left her in poverty and without purpose, but because of her immense mental strength, she overcame all those obstacles in her life and showed the resilience a true hero is admired for.

123476Annie Sullivanbiography.comWith Annie Sullivan’s immense determination to help free disabled people of unjust treatment and her admirable strength to overcome her life’s challenges, the amazing feats she conquered reflect those that a true hero would have done. Annie Sullivan is an inspiration because she never gave up. She had the tenacity and compassion to help others like her. One example was when she took up the feat of teaching the blind and deaf Helen Keller how to communicate despite the extra challenge of teaching her basic ground rules on top of that. Annie also felt strongly towards the stereotypes against blind people and went on fundraising tours to help spread awareness and money towards those who were in need. Sullivan’s life was also hard and difficult from the beginning. Most people who are faced with challenges of any kind would be overwhelmed by them and, in the end, they would give up on their dreams completely. However, Sullivan, who lost her family and contracted an eye disease that hindered her from seeing clearly for the majority of her life, did not let any of that stop her from getting the education she wanted. Annie Sullivan conquered great feats with her strength and determination to help others and herself succeed. As she once said, “We also have the power of controlling the course of our lives. We can educate ourselves; we can, by thought and perseverance, develope all the powers and capacities entrusted to us, and build for ourselves true and noble characters” (Nielson). With helping others who she felt needed it and her immense strength to keep going with life despite it’s challenges, Annie Sullivan possesses the traits a true hero will be remembered for because of one admirable fact; she believed she could and so she did.

Works Cited

"Anne Mansfield Sullivan." Encyclopedia of World Biography, vol. 29, Gale, 2009. Biography In Context,

&xid=3aabda9c. Accessed 29 Mar. 2018.


"Anne Sullivan Macy." Encyclopedia of World Biography, vol. 20, Gale, 2000. Biography In Context,

&xid=3c122960. Accessed 29 Mar. 2018.


Bailey, Ellen. "Anne Sullivan." Anne Sullivan, 8/1/2017, p. 1. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.



Nielsen, Kim E. Beyond the Miracle Worker: the Remarkable Life of Anne Sullivan Macy and Her Extraordinary Friendship with Helen Keller. Beacon, 2010.


Page created on 4/18/2018 6:07:22 PM

Last edited 4/20/2018 2:23:11 AM

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Related Links

Anne Sullivan - Illustrates Annie Sullivan's life and accomplishments. Goes into depth on her challenges at home and school, her illness, and her close relationship with Helen Keller.
Anne Sullivan - Describes the main events in Sullivan's life, her relationships with Helen Keller, her husband, and others. Displays the later years of her life.