Speaking with ‘flying fingers’

The friendship of Perkins’ students Edith Thomas and Willie Elizabeth Robin

Edith Thomas (standing) and Elizabeth Robin (seated) in front of ivy covered wall communicating via the manual alphabet.

When Willie Elizabeth Robin arrived at the Perkins Kindergarten in December 1890, she “was soon running happily with a little girl whom she had singled out as her companion” (Fish, 27). Thus began a lifelong friendship with Edith Thomas, another student in the Perkins Kindergarten. 

Coming to Perkins

Robin came to Perkins from Throckmorton, Texas when she was 6 years old after losing her sight and hearing following an illness (Fish, 27). Thomas, who also became deafblind after a childhood bout with scarlet fever and diphtheria, began her studies at Perkins in 1887 at the age of 9. Thomas was described as a precocious child who was excellent at handiwork and was “sturdy, purposeful and conscientious” (Fish, 18, 34). Robin, on the other hand, was “gentle and affectionate” (Fish, 27). The 1898 Annual Report summarized that “Elizabeth’s vivacious, imaginative temperament presents a strong contrast to Edith’s quiet and sternly practical nature…” (96).

On the day that Robin joined the kindergarten, Thomas was visiting. An article in the February 1891 issue of The Mentor, Harriet M. Markham reported that Robin was “clinging to [Thomas] constantly, following her wherever she went” (47). Markham went on to describe Thomas’ attempts to teach Robin to communicate: “She showed a wonderful amount of patience, repeating over and over again to little Willie the words which her teacher had previously taught her…” (47). Thomas had patience with Robin that she did not exhibit with the other students. Robin would pull on Thomas’ dress and “hang upon her,” which was “a thing which Edith would never allow other children to do.” With Robin, however, Thomas showed “no sign of displeasure with Willie’s pranks” and eventually went to her teacher “with an expression of anxiety and trouble in her face” to ask her to remove her pin so that it would not be broken (48). Thomas seemed to apologize for Robin when she repeated “Willie does not know” (48). While Thomas insisted on Robin playing and following the kindergarten games, she was kind and patient. 

Best friends

In her autobiography, Story of My Life, Robin wrote that Thomas “was one of my best friends” and that she “always loved her on account of her condition as well as for her good character…her sorrows and joys were mine as much as mine were hers” (26). She remembered that she and Thomas “used to sit at the same window, and if we were inclined to talk too much to each other [Perkins teacher] Miss Langworthy would tell us in a nice way to stop, and for me to put my mind at work” (42). 

The friendship was “a source of happiness to both girls” as they enjoyed going for walks and talking in their free time (Fish, 29). During weekly demonstrations of student activities, Robin and Thomas sat next to each other “fingers flying” as they shared ideas and questions through the manual alphabet (Fish, 29). The manual alphabet is a way for people who are deaf to communicate using letters represented by the finger positions used in finger spelling. Thomas did not like to speak, but Robin did not mind so she acted “as a mouthpiece,” frequently interpreting for Thomas. 

In 1904, however, Thomas left Perkins and was admitted to the state hospital in Northampton, Massachusetts after a “deep-seated malady, which was rapidly developing” (1904 Annual Report, 21). Thomas’ departure was devastating to Robin, but their friendship continued despite the separation. The 1904 Annual Report describes Robin’s visit at the end of the school year: “…the meeting was so full of pathos in the intensity of feeling which the two girls displayed. …both were profoundly affected and, when the hour for parting came, each clung to the other as if loth to separate” (100). 

The next year, in 1905, Robin visited Thomas again and “their fingers flew with old-time rapidity in their attempt to say all that they wished…” (1905 Annual Report, 94). Throughout the year, Thomas had written in her letters that she wanted to see her friend, who was “like sunshine” to her (94). 

The next year, the 1906 Annual Report declares that “the two girls had a happy time together” (99). Once again, they communicated “with ceaselessly flying fingers” (99). Throughout the conversation, Robin would let her teacher know what they were talking about and topics covered graduation and “the girls” (99). Aware of Thomas’ health conditions, Robin realized during that visit that it may be her last with her friend and said “It is the last time” (99). Thomas died four years later in 1910 after increasingly failing health. 

Although Thomas left Perkins before she graduated, Robin went on to graduate in 1906 with a high school diploma and a certificate of the completion of the full course in manual training. 

Works cited

Fish, Anna Gardner. Perkins Institution and its Deaf-Blind Pupils 1837-1933. Perkins Publications, 1934.

Markham, Harriet M. “A Happy Life in Silence and Darkness.” The Mentor. (Internet Archive). February 1891.

Robin, Willie Elizabeth. The Story of My Life. 1915. Internet Archive.

Sixty-Seventh Annual Report of the Trustees of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind, for the year ending August 31, 1898.

Seventy-Third Annual Report of the Trustees of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind, for the year ending August 31, 1904.

Seventy-Fourth Annual Report of the Trustees of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind, for the year ending August 31, 1905.

Seventy-Fifth Annual Report of the Trustees of the Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind, for the year ending August 31, 1906.

Suggested citation

Coit, Susanna. “Speaking with flying fingers: The friendship of Edith Thomas and Willie Elizabeth Robin” Perkins Archives Blog, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown MA. June 16, 2021.

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