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Remembering the Helen Keller of Southeast Asia

Former Perkins student Theresa Chan Poh Lin, who was deafblind, left an unforgettable impression on everyone who met her.

Theresa Chan Poh Lin visited 81-year-old Helen Keller in her home in Connecticut in 1961. Chan was inspired by Keller after reading her autobiography, “The Story of My Life.”

Theresa Chan Poh Lin, one of Perkins School for the Blind’s most famous and inspirational students, passed away June 6 after a battle with cancer. Born in Singapore, Chan lost her sight and vision to meningitis at age 14. She went to Perkins in 1960 and announced that her goal was to “learn like Helen Keller, to speak English like the Queen of England, to meet everyone in the world.” She returned to Singapore in 1973 and taught at the Singapore School for the Blind until 1990. She appeared as herself in the critically acclaimed 2005 Singapore movie, “Be with Me.” Because of Chan’s adventuresome spirit, positive attitude and fierce independence, she was frequently described as “the Helen Keller of Southeast Asia.” We asked former Perkins teacher trainee Janet Johnson to share her memories of Chan…

Chan Poh Lin was a deafblind student at Perkins School for the Blind in the 1960s and early ’70s. Perkins Director Dr. Edward J. Waterhouse had met her in Singapore and brought her to Perkins. I knew her as Poh Lin, although she liked to be called Theresa. She was smart, witty, generous, determined and a perfectionist.

Poh Lin arrived as a camper at Beacon Lodge Camp for the Blind in Pennsylvania, where I was a camp counselor, in the summer of 1969. That fall, she returned to Perkins as a student and I followed her to Perkins as a teacher trainee a year later.

When Poh Lin arrived at camp, counselors marveled at the fingers flying between her and her interpreter’s hands and we began practicing fingerspelling.

I had told my college advisor I thought I might like teaching blind children and she suggested I get a summer job to learn more. It was good advice. The part that surprised me was the face-to-face intimacy that occurs when one connects with a person who is blind.

First there is the tactile/physical connection. We were blindfolded that first day at camp. I found myself on the arm of an articulate and competent college grad whose white cane magically guided us around the campground. With Poh Lin, the connection was like holding hands and sharing secrets in a silent dark tunnel.

Then there is the personal connection that rewards that willingness to reach out. Campers told me their stories – a truck driver, a war vet, an African-American albino woman of high intellect raised in an institution simply because she didn’t fit anywhere else.

I wanted to know Poh Lin. I could practice my fingerspelling on my own, but was challenged to read her fingers. Conversation was painfully slow. H-o-w… a-r-e… y-o-u? But she was patient.

We exchanged letters that fall after she returned to Perkins and I entered my senior year in college. The letters were an easier way for me to communicate because someone would interpret to her what I had written and she would type her letter to me. She made very few errors, but always used a worn out typewriter ribbon.

She had lost her vision and hearing starting at age 12, so I assume she learned not only her fluent English at Perkins, but also the bits of Latin she would playfully throw in. “Puella cara mea, Janeta” (My dear friend Janet).

Her letters shared her struggles: “Janet, do not sympathize me too much because I must be alone most of my life for there are no relatives or close friends around here.” (She was to be at Perkins for Christmas vacation.) “I am sad not for being alone, but sad for homewards where my dearest parents are.”

When I arrived at Perkins, I began to learn braille and would send her notes. She would point to the places where I had made an error, wag her finger with disapproval and give me a firm “tisk, tisk.” She prided herself on finding the places where I had tried to rub out mistakes.

As small as my gestures were, she reciprocated with enormous gratitude. As the year ended she gave me a wooden jewelry box she had made in shop class. It has been on my dresser for 45 years. She’d pointed out how smooth it was and how carefully she had sanded it. To this day, I open it, stroke it and think of her.

I lost track of Poh Lin when she returned to Singapore, but I came across her letters a few weeks ago when cleaning out a closet. I now had the time and proficiency to write to her in braille, and wouldn’t that be a fun exchange for both of us? My Google search brought up her obituary…. She had died of lung cancer just four days earlier.

I learned she had been the central character in a movie. “Be with Me” premiered in the 2005 Cannes Film Festival… a remarkable movie about solitude and love. I recognized her in the movie immediately but not by her looks.

The scene is in a grocery store. An interpreter picks up a package of meat and hands it to her. She asks in a nasal tone, “How much?” The interpreter signs into her hand. She scowls and thrusts the package back at the interpreter. “Tell him, ‘Cost too much!!’”

I laughed. She hadn’t lost her spunk. 

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