Happy Pat Conroy Day: A Review of The Water Is Wide (by Bethany)

So today is Pat Conroy Day in the city of Tulsa – the day that inspired us to declare September to be PAT CONROY MONTH! here at Postcards from Purgatory, where gleefully one-upping small midwestern cities is an important part of our mission (You’re next, Topeka!) – and I would like to join the citizens of Tulsa in wishing you a very happy and joyous Pat Conroy Day. I hope you’ll all take time out of your busy lives to remember Pat Conroy and to honor him in some way: by playing basketball, for example, or by eating shrimp or visiting Italy or being cruel to your family members or even by eating lots and lots of mayonnaise, if that is your sort of thing. But if you choose the mayonnaise option, please don’t tell me about it.

Once again I have taken WAY too long to write a review of a Pat Conroy book because I want to fit absolutely everything into it – everything that I know and feel about this author and everything that I have learned about myself and about writing and about education in the years since I’ve been reading his books. And that’s – well, not to be an arrogant jerk or anything, but that’s a big job. Like Pat Conroy’s, my first forays into teaching were energetic, ambitious, and good-hearted, and they were also driven by idealism and egoism. Like Pat Conroy, I took risks and made enormous mistakes. I fought with authority figures, and I let myself be overtaken by frustration and anger. I did some good things too, but in my mind these good things never stopped feeling as if they were tempered by failure. I learned that, in Thoreau’s words, “the universe is wider than our views of it,” and I learned the power of my own assumptions and prejudices. I learned how stubborn the world can be and how stubborn I can be in return.

But you don’t really want to read about me, do you? You want to read about Pat Conroy.

The Water is Wide is a re-read for me, of course – I read it as part of a Pat Conroy obsession when I was fifteen, and then I reread parts of it until I memorized them, which, in those days, was an indispensable part of the reading process for me if I loved a book. But I don’t think I’ve so much as picked it up off a shelf since I left for college, and somehow it has gained a place for itself in my mind as one of Pat Conroy’s “lesser works” (even though I remember loving it). There is a good chance that my subconscious devaluation of this book comes from the fact that Conroy himself seems always ready to malign The Water is Wide – in My Reading Life and in his cookbook, to name only two places where he writes about his first commercially-published book with fondness and nostalgia but also a fair bit of what seems like embarrassment.

I spent the first half of this book gasping. This is a good book – just as funny, just as moving, and much better written than I remembered. I gasped less during the second half and will get to the reasons later on, but for now, please know that this book is beautiful and important. It is only occasionally touched by the excesses of Conroy’s later style. It is politically and socially significant as a document of the Civil Rights movement from a mostly unknown angle. It is full of honesty and anger and love and deserves to rank among the best of the modern American coming-of-age narratives, and I think it is one of the best books ever written about teaching.

While I was reading this book, I heard an offhand remark made by a speaker at the Democratic National Convention to the effect that “there is no such thing as two separate Americas.” Oh, yeah? I growled, shaking my Kindle at the television.

I shake my Kindle at the television a lot.

The Water is Wide is Conroy’s memoir of the year he spent teaching fifth through eighth grade on a sea island off the coast of South Carolina. As far as I know, the book is more memoir than novel; the only deviation that I know of in Conroy’s use of fact is his decision to change the island’s name from Daufuskie Island, where Conroy taught during the 1969-70 school year, to Yamacraw Island in the book. Otherwise, he uses real names and real facts, and the novel has always seemed oddly placed in the fiction section of bookstores.

In 1969, Conroy was 22. He was a recent Citadel graduate and had taught at a public high school in Beaufort, SC during that town’s first year of racial integration in schools. He liked the job but was discouraged by the slow pace of progress and hated seeing the anger and frustration of his black students side by side with the indifference of some of his colleagues. He was young and idealistic and he had young and idealistic friends, and when they heard about the job on Yamacraw Island, they found it appealing in a romantic, Robinson Crusoe sort of way – as a chance to start over in an isolated place and do right what the rest of the country had managed to so horribly screw up: “Since Bernie and I entertained delusions that we would somehow save the world, or at least a small portion of it, the idea of our own island, free from administrative supervision, appealed to us very much” (16).

While I didn’t think of it that way at the time, I think that when I was 28 and moved to Idyllwild, California – 26 miles of winding mountain roads away from the nearest town – it was for the same reason, although by 28 I had given up the idea of saving the world and was willing to settle for saving myself.

On the island, Conroy quickly learns that of his eighteen students (all black; Yamacraw Island was way too isolated to participate in the mainland schools’ program of integration) several were illiterate and lacked basic academic skills like counting, adding, and printing letters, and all were ignorant of basic facts like the organization of the solar system, the touchstones of American and world history, and the fact that their country was fighting a war in Vietnam. They had never heard of Abraham Lincoln or the Emancipation Proclamation, and they did not know that the long struggle toward racial equality in this country was still going on and that they were taking part in it. These children had attended school since they were six, but during those years nothing had happened that you or I would call “education.”

By contrast, Yamacraw School was part of a system presided over by Henry Piedmont, the superintendent whom Conroy recognizes as a “mill-town kid who scratched his way to the top. Horatio Alger, who knew how to floor a man with a quick chop to the gonads… His pride in his doctorate was almost religious. It was the badge that told the world that he was no longer a common man” (3). Part of Piedmont’s job, according to this book’s masterful first paragraph, is to “[maintain] the precarious existence of the status quo” (1). The conflict between two different kinds of idealism – Conroy’s youthful confidence in his changing world and its limitless potential for equality, magnanimity, and growth versus Piedmont’s middle-aged belief that the world as he has inherited doesn’t really have to change and that injustices can always be hidden on islands – provides the momentum of this book.

Now, I happen to be one of those dangerous wacko teachers who think that the job of a teacher is never to maintain the status quo. Passing along traditions can be an appropriate task for an educator, but not at the expense of the neverending process of questioning those traditions. As far as I am concerned, the only rightful job of any educator is to equip the students for revolution – but with two understood corollaries: 1) most or all of the revolutions the students will fight will be personal, not political, and 2) as a teacher, one has to recognize that one is a representative of the world that the students will overthrow – we have to glory in the idea that the job of our students is to one day surpass us.

I realize that I come by these ideas about education from a privileged position. I received an excellent education in two private schools, a liberal arts college, and a state university, and then I taught and worked as an administrator in boarding high schools for ten years. As a student I gelled with some teachers more than others and as a teacher I gelled with some students more than others, but what happened in my classrooms was always fundamentally collaborative, not confrontational. I have feared bosses and failure and my own inadequacies, but as a teacher I have never felt the need to declare martial law in my classroom, nor did I ever feel seriously oppressed in a classroom as a student. I am aware that this experience is a rare luxury that has everything to do with when and where I was born and with choices made first by my parents and then by me – choices that prioritize individuality over conformity in education.

In The Water is Wide, Yamacraw School consists of two classrooms and some kitchen space. Conroy teaches the older children in one classroom, and the other classroom is the dominion of Mrs. Brown, a teacher who had been teaching on the island for several years before Conroy arrived. As Conroy soon discovers, Mrs. Brown is a walking representation of the Gordian knot of race relations in the United States. As a black woman proud of her private school education, Mrs. Brown reveres any person she perceives as representing white authority – including, at first, the 22 year-old Conroy – and is particularly worshipful toward a paternalistic and ineffectual assistant superintendent: “[Mrs. Brown] nodded her head in agreement every time he opened his mouth to utter some memorable profundity. I could not tell if this was a role she was playing or if she actually believed that [he] was the word made flesh” (25). Conroy soon learns to resist Mrs. Brown and everything she stands for (“I would be goddamned if she was going to turn me into an overseer instead of a teacher” [178]; “There was something very wrong in the fact that a black woman in 1969 cast her lot with white men whose thoughts and actions dated back to 1869” [183]).

I have met Mrs. Brown – several incarnations of Mrs. Brown, in fact. I have mentioned that my own education has been one of privilege, courtesy, and challenge; however, I have seen enough of the other face of American education to know that people like Mrs. Brown exist – and they exist now, today – not only in 1969. When Mrs. Brown gives Conroy an initial speech about “the handling of colored children by a teacher so obviously white” (27), I started feeling a little physically sick – because I have been on the receiving end of exactly the same lecture. “’Keep them busy with work all the time or they’ll run you right out of that there door,’ she said. ‘I know colored people better than you do. That’s because I am one myself. You have to keep your foot on them all the time. Step on them. Step on them every day and keep steppin’ on them when they gets out of line” (27).

I don’t remember the name of the most memorable Mrs. Brown figure I’ve met, but I remember what she looked like and what her classroom looked like and even the faces of some of her students. This woman taught eighth grade at Wonder Junior High School in West Memphis, Arkansas, and as far as I can remember, her speech to me and to one of my colleagues might as well have been taken word for word from Conroy’s memoir. Like Conroy, I was in my early twenties when I heard this speech. I was a graduate student working for the Arkansas Writers in the Schools. Once or twice a month, I went into a public school somewhere in the state of Arkansas to teach creative writing – usually poetry. We always traveled in teams of two. Many of the schools we visited were clean, bright, and suburban – the image of what a public school was supposed to look in a free and advanced Western nation. Some schools in impoverished communities were clearly less well equipped but still clean and safe and full of caring teachers and happy children. And others – like Wonder Junior High in West Memphis – were just awful.

It was from this teacher at Wonder Junior High School that I learned that the existence of “black schools” and “white schools” was a contemporary reality, not just a part of American history. “Have you ever been in a black school before?” this teacher asked my colleague and I critically, looking at us in a way that suggested she knew the answer before she heard it. And then she proceeded to give us a speech almost identical to the one Mrs. Brown gives Conroy.

(Side note: in a different school, I once taught a sweet, smiling second grade girl who wrote a poem ABOUT HER ELEMENTARY-SCHOOL PRINCIPAL PISTOL-WHIPPING A DEER. This anecdote is unrelated to my larger comparisons between my experiences and Conroy’s – I just wanted to tell you about it. I mean, if it happened to you, wouldn’t you want to announce it on the internet?)

The problems that Conroy encounters on Yamacraw Island are legion: poverty, isolation (most of the islanders are terrified of the water and don’t know how to swim), violence, alcoholism, superstition, and the presence of both poisonous snakes and hostile and/or paternalistic white people top the list but certainly do not complete it. Fundamentally, though, the problem Conroy most directly tackles is the culture of conformity and gullibility within the educational system on Yamacraw Island.

This book is about developing a healthy respect for cycles. Conroy’s self-declared purpose is to help the children of Yamacraw Island break the cycles of poverty and ignorance that have always dominated their families’ lives; however, what he learns is that social and cultural cycles are like living beings, and when they feel threatened their response is not to break down but to tighten up. When Conroy first takes the job on the island, he rents a house on Yamacraw and only goes back to the mainland on weekends; later, though, he moves to the mainland town of Beaufort (oh, yeah – in this middle of this frenetic year, Conroy gets married and adopts two stepdaughters. 22 year-olds have a LOT of energy, as I perhaps vaguely remember) and commutes daily by boat. On a number of occasions he falls victim to fog and tides and sandbars during a journey that is considered so dangerous by the islanders that they refuse to attempt it even once a year, let alone twice a day, and the power of the cycles of tides and weather emerges naturally as a symbol of the system Conroy is fighting: “Everything occurred in cycles, fanged and implacable cycles. Somehow I had to interfere with the cycle or interrupt it, interject my own past into the present of my students. If I let my students leave me without altering the conditions of their existence substantially, I knew a concrete, sightless ghetto of some city without hope would devour them quickly, irretrievably, and hopelessly. I could hear some white voice coming from some collective unconscious deep within me saying, ‘They don’t know any better. They are happy this way.’ Yet all around me, in the grinning faces of my students, I could see a crime, so ugly that it could be interpreted as a condemnation of an entire society, a nation be damned, a history of wickedness – these children before me did not have a goddam chance of sharing in the incredible wealth and affluence of the country that claimed them, a country that failed them, a country that needed but did not deserve deliverance” (174) and “in crossing the river twice daily I had come closer to more basic things. I had come to know the singular power of a river advancing toward the open sea and the power of tides regulating that advance. I had seen how fog could change the whole world into its own image. The river, the tides, and the fog were part of a great flow and a fitting together of harmonious parts” (285).

This book belongs on the reading list of every high school in the country, and I am sad and embarrassed that I did not reread it just a year or two earlier when I was in a position to shape a school’s reading list. It belongs either in an American literature course, side by side with Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass and/or Invisible Man, both works about the ways that education is both a key to solving the problems of racial oppression in this country and about the ways that education helps to perpetuate these problems. It could also be placed in a 9th or 10th grade course on genre and could provide students with a totally pain-free introduction to the sometimes dicey genre of nonfiction – and it would also make a great summer reading assignment. I also think that every college student studying education should read this book – not only for its insights into the history of American education (which are excellent) and not only for its ability to inspire young teachers (also considerable) but for the way it paints a picture of how easily and painfully one can be sucked into the experience of teaching, especially if one is idealistic and thinks he is stronger and tougher and smarter than the cycles that govern the world.

I mentioned earlier that the first half of this book is stronger than the second half, and I want to explain what I meant by that. The whole book is good, but two small problems start to come clear after its midpoint. The first is that this book is really just a chronicle. It lacks the shape of a novel or even of a good, well thought-out memoir. The structure of the narrative is purely chronological: here’s what happened in September, here’s what happened in October, etc. Obviously this is a SMALL problem: Conroy was a young writer still bruised and indignant (and unemployed) when he wrote the book, and the chronicle structure made sense as a quick and easy way to put his story on paper. But I was disappointed a bit anyway, since the first half of the book seems to promise something a bit more carefully structured and novel-like.

Second, something happens in the second half of the book that is both wonderful and sad. Pat Conroy sort of… well, he sort of becomes Pat Conroy – for all that that implies when it comes to his prose style. I feel like a bit of a traitor saying this about a writer for whom I have great affection, but I think he was a better writer (and by that I mostly mean a more controlled writer) at the beginning of this book than he is at the end. Compare the first paragraph of the novel (“The southern school superintendent is a kind of remote deity who breathes the purer air of Mount Parnassus. The teachers see him only on those august occasions when they need to be reminded of the nobility of their calling. The powers of the superintendent are considerable. He hires and fires, manipulates the board of education, handles a staggering amount of money, and maintains the precarious existence of the status quo” [1]) – in which the sarcasm and anger are present but under control, and in which Conroy essentially introduces his primary antagonist and sets the stage for a traditional hubris story in which a protagonist will challenge the gods – to this passage from close to the end of the book: “I underestimated the dark part of mankind that is rarely seen in the light of day. I failed to reckon with the secret beasts that reside in the lightless forests of men’s souls. The beasts were watching me at the first board meeting, and in the flush of victory I failed to hear the baying of those hounds in the unlighted thickets ahead. The great unpardonable sin I had committed was this: I had embarrassed the superintendent of schools. It was Homer who had written again and again about the dangerous folly of mortals challenging gods. I fought with words and youthful ardor. But Piedmont fought with thunderbolts. And time was his greatest ally” (296). This paragraph follows up on the promise made in the opening paragraph about the hubris story – but just look at the prose. Secret beasts that reside in the lightless forests of men’s souls? Really?

So that’s my long, rambling, mostly positive review of The Water is Wide. I could have written more about the deep, deep affection and humor with which Conroy writes about the children of Yamacraw Island (the dialogue in this book is fantastic), and I also could have done more to tell you about my own run-ins with the Mrs. Browns and Henry Piedmonts of the world. But enough. PAT CONROY MONTH! has been tough on me in a number of ways, jerking me back into times and places and former selves that are certainly worth revisiting but not necessarily easy to revisit. But I never would have reread this book if we hadn’t declared September to be PAT CONROY MONTH!, so for that the whole ordeal has been worth it.

This entry was posted in Authors, Nonfiction - Education, Nonfiction - General, Nonfiction - Memoir/Biography, Pat Conroy, PAT CONROY MONTH!, Reviews by Bethany. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Happy Pat Conroy Day: A Review of The Water Is Wide (by Bethany)

  1. Alison Pelegrin says:

    Great review, as usual.

  2. Pingback: It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year: Welcome to PAT CONROY MONTH! 2013 (by Bethany) | Postcards From Purgatory

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