A Warm and Wise Teacher

By William S. Cumings, Jr.

I think it is appropriate to start this reflection on Helen Beebe, affectionately known by her students as “Beebe,” by referring to the commendation accompanying her 1988 Honors of the Association award, the highest tribute from the Alexander Graham Bell Association. The commendation stated, in part, that “she is a pioneer in the field of auditory therapy, responsible for many new  teaching strategies. . . Beebe has dedicated her life to helping deaf children speak and use their listening skills to interact within the normal hearing world.” She was more than a pioneer. She was a warm and wise, if at times stern, teacher who deeply believed in and cared about all of her students.

I was one of Beebe’s earliest students. I was born profoundly deaf. In 1948, when I was about four years old, I first visited Beebe. I do not have any recollection of the first visit other than that her office was located in the basement of a brownstone building in Easton, Penn. Thus began a long, close and rewarding relationship with Beebe. She was almost like a second parent.

I grew up in Bethlehem, Penn., which is about 10 miles from Easton. In the beginning, my mother would drive me to Easton three times a week for therapy sessions with Beebe. In those days, we had no interstate highways, which meant it took at least a half-hour to go 10 miles. We would drive to Easton after school until I was in the tenth grade. During this time, I was attending mainstream public and private schools. I was the only deaf child in those schools (except for one year in the 10th grade with another Beebe client, my good friend, Mardie Crannell Younglof). 

In light of modern knowledge and science, it is hard to imagine how primitive things were when Beebe and I first started out. In those days, very few professionals believed it was possible for a child with a profound hearing loss to learn to hear and speak well. Hearing aids were bulky. I remember my first hearing aid was much bigger and bulkier than today’s cell phones. Hearing aids could be a nuisance with feedback sometimes emanating from the earpiece.

Beebe worked to teach children who were deaf to speak, and she had to have had the patience of an angel to accomplish what she did with her students. It required constant repetition to teach the proper pronunciation of words.  For example, to my ears, it is impossible to hear or understand the difference between the “sh” and “ch” sounds. Beebe taught me and countless others how to pronounce those sounds by illustrating the placement of the tongue in the enunciation of those sounds. This required constant repetition to produce the sound correctly.

I shudder to think what my life would be like if I hadn’t been fortunate to have been a Beebe student. Because of her, I have had a typical and fun life. When I was in the 10th grade, I attended a mainstream boarding school and fit in with the other students. I attended the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service and graduated from Moravian College. After graduation, I served in the VISTA program (the domestic Peace Corps) and then went to law school at West Virginia University. Since 1971, I have served as an attorney in both public and private practice. Because of what I have learned from Beebe, I have had few, if any, inhibitions when it comes to doing things or communicating with others.  I’m sure most of her students may have the same sentiments.

I often visited Beebe when I was home from school or visiting my parents. We would have lively discussions about the topics of the day and developments at the Beebe Center. I know many of her students and their parents kept in touch with her throughout the years.

 You can only say this about very few teachers - she made a difference. Beebe certainly did make a difference to a lot of fortunate people. She made a huge difference in the lives of many.