Education Made Available
When Fanny was 15, she was given a scholarship to the New York Institution for the Blind in Manhattan. The government of New York decided to give a scholarship to one blind child from every county in the state so they could get an education and learn a trade. This was to be a dream come true for young Fanny!
This school taught Christian morals alongside hard work, patriotism, and citizenship. The students were taught geography with textured maps and globes. Geology was also taught using the sense of touch to take the place of sight. They were taught to write using pencils paper on grooved pasteboards (although Fanny apparently never mastered this skill very well -- friends said her signature looked like a pile of spider legs). Before the advent of Braille, they read via embossed letters. Math involved a metal slate with punched holes to help with counting.
Fanny and School
Fanny referred to arithmetic as a “great monster” and she never did master Braille. She blamed her problems with Braille on her hobbies of knitting, sewing, needlepoint, etc. -- all of which she did while blind, mind you! She mastered them by counting stitches, shesaid.
Fanny did, however, hone her poetic skills. Her mother, Mercy, was the first in the family to notice Fanny's talent and encouraged her to keep writing. She even sent some of Fanny's poems in to be published. While at the New York Institution for the Blind, poetry became second nature to her and was a source of fun and amusement. They often had her write poems in honor of special guests, and were delighted with the results.
School was obviously not all fun and games, though. The students had a strict schedule they had to follow, and their education was anything but easy. Their daily schedule included chapel (in a state-funded school, no less), and, of course, their classes. Time was allotted for the students to pursue their own interests, such as music or sewing. Fanny thrived in this environment – and for the first time in her life was accused of pride.
The school superintendent felt she had taken pride in the praise that her poetry received, and gently but firmly corrected her for it. This criticism – the accusation of pride – would bother her for the rest of her life. Whether she genuinely had a struggle with pride, we may never know. No doubt for many it would be difficult to remain humble with as much praise as she received for her poetry.
After graduation, Fanny was eventually hired as a full-time teacher at the Institution. This provided her with a full-income and an opportunity to hone her musical skills even more.
Fanny the Musician
Fanny did very well at the New York Institution for the Blind. She studied there for eight years, then stayed on an additional two years as a graduate. During this time, she mastered several instruments, including the harp, piano, organ, and guitar – and also developed her soprano singing skills. She also studied music under George Root, who wrote several cantatas with her.
Initially, Mr. Root was hesitant about teaching the blind to sing. He wasn't sure what to do if he couldn't use his chalk and chalkboard, but he adapted quickly. The students learned so quickly and so well that he later joked that he could swear they weren't blind. He later said that the students at the Institution for the Blind sang better than any of his students that had the gift of sight.
Fanny the Activist
Fanny became the very first woman to speak in the US Congress when she read this poem she had written:
O ye, who here from every state convene,
Illustrious band! may we not hope the scene
You now behold will prove to every mind
Instruction hath a ray to cheer the blind
She was there lobbying for the education of the blind, and it certainly would not be her last interaction with governmental authorities on behalf of the blind. She would go on not only to recite poems, but sing and accompany herself on an instrument – with her own songs.
There was a horrible cholera epidemic in Manhattan in 1849, and it was no respecter of persons. It started in New Orleans, having been brought aboard ship by a passenger from France. In New Orleans alone, cholera claimed 3,500 victims. It spread to New York, and in the first few months it claimed over 800 lives. The Institute decided to send its students home, but not all students had homes to go to. Fanny did have a home to go to, but chose to stay to help in any way she could. She ended up assisting with nursing, and even making cholera pills that were two parts calomel and one part opium.
Death was truly on every side. For a long time Fanny was haunted by the cries of the wagons that came to collect the remains of those who had died, calling out, "Bring out your dead!"
In the end, the Institution for the Blind lost 10 students, and over 5,000 New Yorkers lost their lives. When it was all over, Fanny found herself depressed and exhausted.
Wikipedia, Fanny Crosby
Cyberhymnal, Fanny Crosby
Blumhofer, Edith, Her Heart Can See: The Life and Hymns of Fanny Crosby
Ruffin, Bernard, Fanny Crosby: The Hymn Writer
Sara McCaslin is an engineer, a computer scientist, and a freelance writer.