The Water is Wide: A Memoir – Pat Conroy

conroyWhile reviewing my list of books to read, I did a double take as I read the title of this memoir by Pat Conroy.  I had added it for a reason yet at the time, I could not recall why.  But I put that aside and decided that there is no time like the present and it might be a hidden gem.  It turns out that I was right in my assessment.   However, I was not prepared for the incredible story within by Pat Conroy (1945-2016) that sheds light on the lives of those who have been forgotten even in the most powerful nation on earth.   I knew that the story centered around education but of course, teaching is never as simple as writing on a blackboard.  In fact, what is revealed in the book should remove all doubt that teaching is by any means as easy task. Some of us are naturally gifted to handle a classroom full of students, each with their own peculiar personality.  In many ways, the teacher is conductor working the orchestra to fine tune all the instruments and produce a symphony that is pleasing to the ears. Conroy is the conductor here and what he accomplished on Yamacraw Island, South Carolina, will leave you sad, angry, and happy at the same time. 

As I started reading the book, I asked myself where on earth is Yamacraw Island?  The name is fictitious, but the land mass is known as Daufuskie Island which is located off the southeastern coast of South Carolina, close to Savannah, Georgia.  It is only accessible by ferry or barge and has a population of less than one thousand people at any given time.  The island has a rich history and is part of the region once home to the Gullah, African Americans who resided on the island and the nearby islands in South Carolina and Georgia.  I had to take a break and look up the Gullah people as I did not know much about them. But Conroy points readers in the right direction: 

“The island blacks of South Carolina are famous among linguists for their Gullah dialect. Experts have studied this patois for years and they have written several books on the subject. It is a combination of an African dialect and English; some even claim that remnants of Elizabethan English survive among the Gullah people.” 

After doing some research, I came back to the book with a better understanding of the environment awaiting Conroy as he begins his teaching assignment on the island.  Readers interested in the Gullah culture will find that this article contains a wealth of information.  After arriving for his assignment with the blessing of Dr. Piedmont, Conroy is given a baptism by fire and soon learns that life of Yamacraw is unlike his comfortable existence in Beaufort and other parts of the South. Further, it will challenge his idea of blacks, largely formed by his middle-class background.  The author is brutally honest and even discusses his own prejudice against blacks that had been cultivated in his youth.  His transformation throughout the book is remarkable and it is fair to say that the kids of Yamacraw left their mark on him. Conroy also leaves his mark on the island which becomes evident as Piedmont seeks his departure from the school.  The people in the book grew on me as well but there are many disturbing issues that come to the surface in the story as Conroy learns that he is really one of the very few people who cares about the island and its inhabitants. 

The book is set in the 1960s and in the South, bringing the issue of race to the forefront.  Race is everywhere in the story as one might expect and even those who try to appear as upstanding citizens are not free of bias that is shockingly horrific at times. The casual use of racial epithets and deranged ideas of communist hippies invading the island might make some readers recoil in disbelief and anger.  Conroy feels the rage increasing within and after one unsettling experience, he remarks: 

“Christ must do a lot of puking when he reflects upon the good works done in his name.” 

As a Black American, I was not surprised at the attitudes in the book and even today there are people who strongly feel that way.  But Conroy and others critical to the story, go above and beyond to change the lives of those students in any way possible.  And although he stayed on the island just a couple of years, what he accomplishes is more than had been done previously even though the school is part of the larger Beaufort public school district.  His work was not easy and on more than one occasion he crosses swords with Mrs. Brown who earns the wrath of the students.  But surprisingly, some of the biggest challenges come from the natives themselves and not the administration in Beaufort.  The author soon learns that he is embarking on difficult journey to break through a wall surrounding a culture that those outside of Yamacraw would never understand.  Superstition, illiteracy, and the fear of whites make his job increasingly difficult as he implements an unorthodox program to help the students learn basic arithmetic, geography, reading and writing.  The most basic skills a student should have are lacking and Conroy is in disbelief at how far behind the kids really are. All throughout the story, the backwardness of the island becomes hauntingly clear and changes his perception of the entire school system:

“Something was dawning on me then, an idea that seemed monstrous and unspeakable. I was beginning to think that the schools in Beaufort were glutted with black kids who did not know where to search for their behinds, who were so appallingly ignorant that their minds rotted in their skulls, and that the schools merely served as daytime detention camps for thousands of children who would never extract anything from a book, except a page to blow their noses or wipe their butts.”

The story is impossible to read without experiencing a range of emotions. But there are some beautiful moments such as their trip off the island for Halloween and the second excursion for a fair. The children absolutely love the experience and Conroy had opened their eyes to the world outside of Yamacraw.  And the main characters among the children are charismatic in their own right.   Mary is one of Conroy’s favorites next to Saul who is always interacting with the teacher whom they call “Mr. Conrack”.  They are beautiful souls who have been failed by those closest to them and a school system that had no intention on improving their education which was virtually non-existent.   When I finished the book, I wished that Conroy had written an epilogue that would have explained what did happen to the kids on the island. Some may have never moved away from it while others may have made the decision to see the rest of America and the world.  If they have read this book, the memories of “Mr. Conrack” and his efforts to give them an education must surely bring back a flood of memories, some of which are quite painful.  But if there is any solace to be found, it is that Conroy has put on the record, just how bad the education system in America was for many blacks living in areas that were neglected horribly. 

The New York Times listed the book as a best-seller, and it is not hard to see why. It truly is an incredible story even if it seems unreal at times.  However, Conroy reveals that in the United States, the “American Dream” is a myth for those whom society has forgotten about.  And the account here can serve as an example of educational policies that are dismal failures.  If you are looking for a good book about American society that explores a social issue which still rears its head, this is must-read. 

ASIN : B003XKN65U

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