Monday, March 25, 2013

How He Did It

It may be remiss of me, now that I’ve brought you up past the point of high school graduation in Samuel W. Bean’s story, to neglect explaining just how Sam managed to turn his life around. After all, not only is it challenging to learn how to communicate, once having lost both the ability to see and hear, but it is also difficult to overcome that sense of anger and bitterness over what had happened to an otherwise healthy young person in such a formative stage of life.

Think about it for a minute. Sam’s twin challenges could have been stumbling blocks for many people. At the very start, it would be difficult to apply teaching techniques aimed at either the newly-blind or the newly-deaf, because the skills necessary to acquire one would be negated by the recent loss in the other. Sign language, after all, is a language made to be seen.

Apparently, Sam floundered in his progress at the first. This may have been due partly to his own response—and can you blame him?—to what had befallen him. But it also had to do with the fact that no educator seemed to know how to handle his case. While Helen Keller’s story comes immediately to mind—for us, removed by decades from the famous saga of Anne Sullivan’s intervention—at the time of Sam’s injury, these were not training techniques widespread in the West.

Sam’s Annie Sullivan turned out to be a young blind instructor, herself, by the name of Mary White Eastman. Born in Michigan in 1870 to a father with family roots in Maine, Mary was a resident of San Francisco when she graduated from the Berkeley school in 1892. Not possessing any academic credentials other than a strong sense of determination and a native ability to teach, Mary White Eastman devoted many years of service to the blind, both at the California School for the Deaf and Blind, and in other capacities.

So, how did she do it?

An article—once again in the Oakland Tribune, this time on May 5, 1918—explained Miss Eastman’s technique.
            Months of patient application…succeeded in teaching the boy a system of “talking,” which combined the deaf alphabet with a code made up of Morse telegraphic tappings communicated from the hand of the teacher to that of the pupil. In this way Sammy Bean now talks to a half dozen or more people, while others communicate with him by tracing the outlines of ordinary letters of the alphabet on the palms of his hand.
Before that moment in which Sam found his way out of his own personal prison, he was trapped without any way to communicate with others, no matter how much they might have cared for him.
            It was Miss Eastman who gave Sammy his first communication with the world after the latter suffered the accident which robbed him of two of his faculties. For two years the boy, then a child of 13, had no intercourse of any kind with the world. Although surrounded by loving relatives and friends, they found no way to penetrate his deafness and his blindness.
Approaching the date of his graduation from the California School for the Deaf and Blind, Sam wrote a poem which he dedicated to his teacher. He called it “Light in the Darkness.” The Tribune article which reprinted the poem remarked on his teacher’s “untiring efforts” which had “lifted him from the depths of despair to the heights of a happiness and contentment which he had never hoped to attain.”

Hyperbole? Perhaps. In Sam’s case, though, the despair may have indeed seemed never-ending—paving the way for such a boundless joy.

Beyond such dynamics, though, it appears there was more to the story than just the innovation of a communication technique that blended Morse code and finger spelling. Mary White Eastman brought much more to the education of this one Samuel Bean than just the ability to communicate once again.

instructor and student from the California School for the Deaf and Blind in 1920

Photograph above: Mary White Eastman with Samuel W. Bean; from Samuel Bean's booklet of poetry, "Light in Darkness," self-published in 1920; in the public domain.


  1. Hello! I have enjoyed reading your blog for some time & have nominated you for the Liebster Award. Please read my blog on Thursday, March 28 to read the rules, etc. Please keep posting! Colleen

    1. Colleen, thank you so much for thinking of me! I'm honored. I look forward to stopping by your blog on Thursday to see your post.

      Actually, Colleen, I've enjoyed reading what you are doing on your own blog for quite a long time.

  2. I think the technique of Morse code and tracing letters is ingenious. They must have been very close. It takes a world of love and patience to bring someone back from that brink! Did you every see "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly"? I think you would really like that movie, based on your knowledge of Sam's life journey.

    1. Mariann, I had never heard of that film, so I took the opportunity to look it up. Sounds like a fascinating--though heartbreaking--story. I'm more of a book person than a movie fan, though, and noticed it was originally introduced as a book, so I will see if there is an English translation...else I'll have to get unstuck from the very rusty and deplorable state of my skills in French.

  3. Imagine, slow as it is... to suddenly be able to "connect" to someone outside of your own head once more (or for the first time in Helen Keller's case)... I assume Sam could speed up the process and talk back - and then wait for the slow reply to be impressed on his hands.

    1. I remember reading the part of the story of Helen Keller's first experience when it dawned on her what all that wiggling in her hand really meant--like stumbling upon a new universe!

      Of course, as you mentioned, Sam could speed things up with his hearing relatives--or even blind-only classmates--by speaking his answers.

      Having never had the opportunity to meet him, myself, I really don't know how he handled such situations. Regardless, his grandson and I both learned Sign Language in his memory, which in itself opened up a new world for us in being able to communicate with the deaf. Though it's been years since I've been in contact with any deaf friends (and I've probably forgotten much of what I learned), I sure learned a lot from that experience.

  4. Replies
    1. Yes! They certainly add fortitude and perseverance to the mix. If it weren't for that, a lot of learning probably would never have happened!

  5. Oh, poor Sam! Two years of isolation before being able to communicate with others. He must have felt trapped inside his own world separated from everyone else. I can't even imagine the despair he must have felt.

    What a blessing Mary White Eastman was in Sam's (and his family's) life. Sam was finally freed from his prison.

    1. Sam only mentions that isolation period briefly, in all I can find about him, but he did admit it was a struggle to resign himself to the situation.

      Once he was ready to acknowledge his new reality, though, was when he could begin seeking new resolutions. His stages of response put me in mind of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross' Five Stages of Grief--the only difference being that Sam could seek a new level of hope, unlike the basic premise underlying Kubler-Ross' analysis (death and dying).


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