February 20, 2019

The StartX Files: Seeing Linux Without Sight

Twenty Feet and a World Away

  • February 27, 2001
  • By Brian Proffitt

When I was a young lad--actually a scrawny little punk who would mouth off for any reason whatsoever--I would travel with my mother down to the Gulf Coast of Florida to spend the summer with my grandparents. These were essentially two-day trips, since there was little chance a single mother and her son were going to drive straight through from northern Indiana to southern Florida.

Invariably, our route would take us down I-75 through Chattanooga, Atlanta, and Tampa. One summer, after an uncle had moved to Memphis, we opted to saunter over and visit him, and came up north through Alabama. Which is how I found myself at the age of 15 in Tuscumbia, Alabama, trying to find the birthplace of Helen Keller.

I had read The Miracle Worker in school, of course. I was no expert on Helen Keller, but I knew the basic story: struck blind and deaf at the age of 19 months, Keller grew up to be a spoiled, wild child with little desire to communicate. After a meeting with Alexander Graham Bell, Keller's parents were introduced to teacher Anne Sullivan, who came to live with the six-year old and her family in Tuscumbia.

It was soon apparent to Sullivan that the Keller family, while well-meaning, indulged Helen far too much. Sullivan asked for permission to move into the cook's house, isolating Helen away from her family so they could get down to business. Soon after, Sullivan managed to get across the power of communication using the now-famous demonstration of spelling w-a-t-e-r on Keller's hands while immersing those hands in the flow of the running well pump.

It is a story many of us are familiar with, but it bears a review, because after reading that story and seeing the reality, I was struck with a very startling realization. When you read about that incident, you assume that the cook's house was fairly far away from the main house--something like four or five hundred yards or so. How else would Helen Keller be kept from her family?

But when you see the house for yourself, you find out that the two buildings are less than 20 feet apart. Students of history would realize this fact, since cook's houses were the working kitchens for many middle- to upper-class homes. They couldn't be that far away. In the book, it sounds as if Sullivan has transported her student to another world. But it was only 20 feet, with the famous well in-between the main house and the cook's house.

And it hit me, this scrawny little punk sweating in the Alabama sun, right there and then: the magnitude of what being blind must be like. It came all at once, and changed one of my perceptions forever. I cannot claim full knowledge of being without sight, of course--any sighted person who says that is an arrogant ass. But for one moment, standing by a hand-pumped well, I had a glimpse of what it must be like to be 20 feet and a world away.

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