When Nellie Winitzky came to The Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind as a thirteen year old in 1905, her private teacher, Elizabeth Hoxie got right to work and began detailed notes about her work with her new student. These Teacher Journals, now housed in the Perkins School for the Blind Archives, provide a record of both Winitzy’s experience and education while at the School alongside her teacher’s impressions and thoughts about her progress.
Winitzky was born on May 28, 1892. When she entered Perkins, she was one of eight children in her family, four of them younger than Winitzky. At age six, “spinal meningitis, induced by a sunstroke” caused her to lose her sight and hearing, and “major chorea” followed (1940 Annual Report). At the time of her illness, she was in the kindergarten program at Hooker School in Springfield, Massachusetts, where her family lived (1940 Annual Report). In November of 1900 she began studying at the Clarke School for the Deaf in nearby Northampton, Massachusetts. She remained there until June 1902 when the school recommended that she attend an institution for the blind because of her “uncertain” eyesight (Box 18, AG54).
In a 1906 report, Hoxie wrote that “Nellie’s fingers, thru sickness, are less sensitive than other girls of her age.” (AG54, Box 18) She goes on to describe how she adapted her teaching methods to accommodate Winitzky and noted that “Nellie’s finger tips seemed to have awakened” and that Nellie’s progress had “far exceed[ed] my ambitions” (Summary, 1905-’06, AG54, Box 18).
Winitzky struggled at times with the transition to Perkins. Hoxie wrote that “It took Nellie some time to realize that many of the pupils here could not see at all” and that she was, “amused to see them put their hands before them when walking.” Hoxie noticed a “decided change,” however, after Winitzky had a class with Julia Burnham and after getting to know Lenna Swinnerton, both of whom were blind.
In her first year at Perkins, Winitzky began to learn the manual alphabet, a way for people who are deafblind to communicate by having someone sign the alphabet in their hand. “It is very necessary that Nellie should learn the manual alphabet,” Hoxie wrote. Her first lesson was on September 25 and, Hoxie recorded, “it all amused N. very much she cannot quite make out what it all means or why I am doing such things.” (AG54, Box 18). In 1906, however, Hoxie reported that “Nellie did not forget the alphabet during the summer and was so glad to get where it was used by others for her benefit” (AG54, Box 18).
At the end of the 1905-1906 year, Hoxie reported that Winitzky’s face has a “bright, open, wide-a-wake” look and that she was never disturbed by new work. Winitzky “takes kindly and cheerfully to whatever task is assigned her” and “delights in work which takes real mental effort” (AG54 Box 18). Winitzky struggled, however, in reading because the “devices being so entirely new.” Hoxie concluded that “By nature, she is creative,and loves to learn by doing” as she took “great pleasure in all the work in the manual training department.” ….
Winitzky came back to Perkins on September 19 for the 1907-1908 school year. In the report for the year, Hoxie notes that Winitzky was not well all year and that her “mental work has not be all that we had looked for.” Nonetheless, Winitzky is “a good child and has a good attitude toward all her work. She is naturally industrious and never says she will not do her work, or that she does not enjoy it” (AG54, Box 19). Hoxie noted that Winitzky’s family wrote “that they think she grows more sensible.” (AG54, Box 19)
Winitzky remained “…still faithful to all tasks set her and usually works with a right goodwill” according to Hoxie’s 1908-1909 school year report. During the winter, Winitzky learned to play checkers and a new baby sister at home made her eager to go home for visits. Communication at home, however, remained challenging as Hoxie noted, “in order for Nellie to be really happy with they they must learn to use the manual alphabet.” (AG54, Box 19)
Hoxie’s summary of the 1909-1910 school year serves as somewhat of a summary of their work together as Hoxie left Perkins at the end of the year. She began the report by stating that, “As a rule Nellie’s attitude towards life is very pleasant,” but goes on to explain that Winitzky struggled with school work because “the work with the blind is so largely tactile” and her fingers were still not as sensitive. At the end of the report, she reflects on their time together: “I have tried to keep her independent and not to feel that outside the classroom she must be constantly with me. Someone has said in a very friendly way that ‘you seem to leave a great deal of the care of Nellie to her guardian angel!’ I certainly have and yet she has not been neglected.” She finishes, “I feel confident that Nellie will grow, and that the future holds much that will help to make my pupil a useful, loveable woman.” (AG54, Box 19)
At the start of the 1910-1911 school year, Winitzky had a new teacher: Abbie G. Pottle. Pottle continued Hoxie’s Teacher Journal, first writing that her student is “eager to learn and to stand well in her classes.”
In March 1911, Winitzy was happy to be going home to celebrate Passover with her family. When Pottle asked her why she was so glad to be home, Winitzky repled: “It is because we have a feast, chicken and everything good to eat.” Pottle remarked, “I am afraid our Nellie is very carnal-minded” and that she “could not discover that she felt any religious sentiment in the [observances] of the passover [sic] although I questioned her closely.” She concluded, “Chicken seemed to be uppermost in her mind.” (Box 19 AG54)
The report for the 1911-1912 school year announced that it had been decided that Winitzky’s “course at Perkins Institution will end with the close of this school year.” Winitzky’s health declined during the year and ultimately made it hard for her to concentrate on her studies (AG54, Box 20). Pottle summarized: “She has been in the school seven years and in that length of time has acquired much knowledge, and learned how to do many things that will be helpful to her in the years to come.” She continued, however, “She will in all probability never be able to earn a living for herself as she is incapacitated physically for any active work….” (AG54 Box 20) Pottle writes that it was believed that the “break in her school life” be made now so that she can have a better relationship with her younger siblings, who, it was implied, she would be caring for at home.
Winitzky “felt badly for a little while” after being told that she would not be returning to Perkins and “[spoke] frequently of the fact that she will miss her school-mates and friends.” Her teacher believed that as the end of the year approached, though, “her mind has adjusted itself to the coming change, and that there is to a certain extent a feeling of relief at the prospect of a cessation from the many duties incumbent upon her as a pupil of Perkins Institution.” (AG54, Box 20)
Hoxie and Pottle’s notes about Winitzky’s time at Perkins gives us much more detail than the biography included in publications such as Anna Gardner Fish’s Perkins Institution and its Deaf-Blind Pupils 1837-1933 and brief reports in Annual Reports. These candid records allow us to learn more about Winitzky’s day-to-day experiences, her teachers’ concerns, individualized learning, and successes and challenges as a student at Perkins.
AG54 Students with deafblindness at the Perkins School for the Blind Collection. Perkins School for the Blind Archives, Watertown, MA.
Fish, Anna Gardner. Perkins Institution and its Deaf-Blind Pupils 1837-1933. Perkins Institution and Massachusetts School for the Blind, Watertown, MA. 1934.
“Nellie Winitzky.” Seventy-Fifth Annual Report of the Trustees. Perkins Institution And Massachusetts School for the Blind, Watertown, MA. 1906. Available on the Internet Archive.
Coit, Susanna. “Teaching Nellie Winitzky.” Perkins Archives Blog, Perkins School for the Blind, Watertown MA, August 22, 2022.