This op-ed was previously printed in the September 22nd edition of the Dallas Morning News.
I was shocked to hear that the State Board of Education had voted, preliminarily, to eliminate Helen Keller from the history curriculum.
I shifted from shock to disbelief when I learned that the criteria the board used to decide whom to eliminate involved ranking “essential” figures according to whether they “triggered a watershed change,” were from an “underrepresented group,” or had an impact that would “stand the test of time,” and that Helen Keller had failed that test, only scoring a 7 on their 20-point scale.
For me, doing justice to the life and legacy of Helen Keller means refusing to accept injustice, suffering, or barriers to human potential. That is why, in her name, I object to this vote to delete one of our country’s most heroic trailblazers for education and human rights, and one of our most indelible examples of the power of the human spirit to overcome hardship. Helen Keller is the American dream, earned by living bravely to reach one’s highest ability while helping others to reach theirs.
Helen Keller not only triggered a watershed change for underrepresented groups of people, she literally redefined our understanding of human potential.
Helen Keller taught us that “impossible is nothing.” She taught us new ways of seeing ourselves, and each other. She did this not only by overcoming extraordinary obstacles in her own life, but also by founding organizations and leading movements that, to this day, fight for the powerless by changing laws, improving lives, and defending human rights. She not only unlocked doors to improve the lives of underrepresented people, she removed the doors from their hinges.
Most people know the most famous part of her story. When she was not even two years old, Helen Keller was stricken with an illness that left her completely blind, deaf, and unable to speak. Language — and the devotion of a heroic teacher — liberated her from that prison of isolation.
It would indeed be a shame, and a profound loss, if children in Texas did not get the chance to learn a less famous part of her story.
Helen Keller grew up to become an epic force for change. She was both an Alabaman and a global citizen, a patriot and a progressive. She fought fiercely for opportunity and civil and human rights for people living with disabilities, as well as for women, workers, wounded veterans, and communities living in poverty.
These milestones have earned her a place in American history:
- Keller was the first deaf-blind person to graduate from college and earn a Bachelor of Arts degree, cum laude, from Radcliffe.
- To help veterans blinded in World War I, she co-founded Helen Keller International, a global health charity that today serves millions of vulnerable people.
- She co-founded the American Civil Liberties Union.
- She toured the world investigating and advocating for the blind and the poor.
- For over 40 years, she led the American Foundation for the Blind.
- She was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
- She authored more than a dozen books and numerous articles.
- She remains an enduring symbol of courage and triumph over adversity.
Keller’s life and legacy speak for themselves, and they drive us daily to live up to her example.
She devoted herself to improving the lives of those without power, without advantage, without the ability to speak for themselves. It is not surprising that Mark Twain compared her to Joan of Arc and called her “the eighth wonder of the world.”
Her achievements helped shape our history and continue to impact the present and lead us toward a more vibrant future.
My faith in Keller’s influence makes me believe the State Board of Education will realize its error and recognize her for what she is: an embodiment of all that is best about America.