New Canaan teen rewrites history on Helen Keller
A teenager's dream to become a published writer turned into reality during the winter holiday.
It began when a family friend personally delivered 15 volumes of Charles Dickens's complete works dated 1883 from Syosset, N.Y., to 15-year-old Dickensian Jordan L. Cerbone of New Canaan and ended with a major discovery and new theory about Helen Keller, the blind-deaf girl whose story inspired William Gibson to write the 1957 play and 1962 film called "The Miracle Worker."
"I read most of Dickens' works several times and many biographies written about him," Jordan, who is the youngest member in the Dickens Fellowship of New York's 106-year history, said. "But I never read American Notes, an account of Dickens' trip to America in 1842."
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This book included an account of Charles Dickens' visit to the Perkins Institution in Boston and described in detail the communication method used by Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe to teach a young deaf-blind girl.
"I immediately thought about Helen Keller and Anne Sullivan. However, when I gleaned through the words I came upon the name Laura Bridgman," he said. "I wondered if there may be a connection between this work and the Kellers."
Helen Keller, who lived in Easton from 1936 until her death in 1968, became the focus of Cerbone's research. All Helen Keller books were checked out and renewed from the New Canaan Library with dozens of hours spent reading and researching material in the books and on the internet. As his investigation became more complex Jordan wrote to Perkins Institution (now called the Perkins School for the Blind) for original documents and letters. Research librarian Jan Seymour-Ford offered her assistance with archived material. Several original letters and transcripts between Helen's father Captain Arthur Henley Keller and Perkins Director Michael Anagnos (who replaced Dr. Samuel Gridley Howe upon his death) were sent to Jordan to aid with his research.
"Jan (Seymour-Ford) was my second set of eyes," Jordan said. "She read my draft and final manuscript so that I accurately reported the Perkins and Helen Keller information."
Everything was in order except for some data regarding Dr. Alexander Graham Bell, noted educator of the deaf.
A friendly debate arose when Jordan maintained that Mrs. Kate Adams Keller's reading of American Notes prompted the Kellers to seek help from Perkins Institution for the daughter. On the contrary, Ms. Seymour-Ford claimed that Dr. Alexander Graham Bell was the person who initially referred the Kellers to the Perkins School to obtain a tutor for Helen. The question remained "Who was responsible for referring the Kellers to Perkins Institution?" (Note: Anne Sullivan graduated as valedictorian of Perkins Institution when Capt. Keller wrote to this school for a tutor).
"I organized all of the archived letters, transcripts and the 1887 Annual Report excerpts that Jan sent me into sequential order and proved that Capt. Keller was, in fact, corresponding with Mr. Michael Anagnos at Perkins Institution months before he visited Dr. Alexander Graham Bell with Helen. Annie Sullivan was recommended by Mr. Anagnos as a suitable teacher for Helen. Anagnos and Captain Keller were discussing terms of employment prior to his meeting with Dr. Bell. I sent my findings and a theory back to Perkins for their review and input," Jordan said.
In a matter of hours an e-mail was sent to Jordan conceding to his discovery. This coveted acknowledgment from Perkins validating his finding and proposed theory meant that there were similar errors in other Helen Keller biographies.
In January 2011, The Perkins School for the Blind updated its website to incorporate Jordan's discovery and requested a copy of his paper to add to their permanent collection on Helen Keller. Jordan's discovery means a factual error existed on The Alexander Graham Bell Association (Washington, D.C.) website. Data on the association's website indicated Bell recommended Sullivan to Helen Keller. At Jordan's suggestion, Jan Seymour-Ford notified the Association of the error.
An excerpt from Jordan's paper reads:
"How could it be that Dr. Bell is credited with initially suggesting Perkins Institution to the Kellers? Perhaps the answer lies with Helen's recall. Obviously, she would recall a long trip to see Drs. Chisholm and Bell but how would Helen understand that her father previously wrote to Perkins Institution since she was unable to understand the concept of a letter prior to her education at the hands of Miss Sullivan and the educators at Perkins Institution? Indeed we may deduce that it was Mrs. Kate Adams Keller's reading of Charles Dickens's American Notes that may have led to their initial enquiries at Perkins Institution months before the meeting with Drs. Chisholm and Bell."
Not only has Jordan's discovery and paper caused much interest at The Perkins School for the Blind, it has sparked excitement among Dickensians in England and in the States. Currently, his manuscript is under consideration for publication in London.