Pat Conroy - The Water Is Wide: A Memoir

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The original Prince of Tides milks a rat

Jan 7, 2007 (Updated Jan 8, 2007)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Hilarious, opinionated, and frank. Nothing superhuman--any "miracle work" is the fallible and understated kind.

Cons:As usual, waxes a little purple. Maybe the outcome...though that is arguable.

The Bottom Line: You don't need to be a teacher to read this--either way, it's a fantastic book for anyone who enjoys Conroy's storytelling, or just a great involving yarn in general.


Whenever I read anything by Pat Conroy, I always imagine the “voice” to be Tom Wingo, the self-deprecating wisecracker of Conroy’s The Prince of Tides. That turned a little ironic this time out: The Water Is Wide is Pat Conroy’s own memoir of his short stint as a teacher—and one of only three white people—on Yamacraw Island in the 60s. Nonetheless, his “Tom” persona permeates this book in descriptions of neglect so deplorable that absurdity is the last defense—literally, sometimes you just have to laugh. (The “southern way,” I guess.)

If Conroy—hailed by various islanders as “Conrack,” “C’roy,” “Mr. Patroy,” and “Yes ma’am”—didn’t find some morbid little chuckle, his nerve would be lost to the enormity of the gulf that separates his world from theirs. And it is another world, as the interloper realizes too quickly—his first discovery is that no child, of any grade level, has learned the name of their country or what an ocean is; all eighteen “concurred with the pre-Copernican Theory that the earth was the center of the universe.” Six cannot recite the alphabet. Several cannot write their own names. None of them can understand half of Conroy’s drawl, and vice versa.

Conroy, whose worst teaching challenge up to then has been bored junior high English students, finds his new audience daunting, but he’s anything but bored. He begins a rapid-fire riff of basic facts peppered with newscasts, Reader’s Digest classical music, and James Brown’s greatest hits. In answer, the students—now great fans of Bay Cloven the Fifth (Beethoven, whose 5th Symphony becomes his natural title)—show themselves to be colorful characters. Mary interprets for Prophet, who speaks in a Gullah worth five speech impediments: “Sometimes the whole class would help Mary out, and seventeen voices would rise in an unintelligible gibberish…Then Mary would proudly explain to me that Prophet wanted to take a p*ss.” Ethel and other girls enlighten him on the intricate process of “scrinching” (gutting and skinning a squirrel) and fitting side dishes for said squirrel. Conroy, unversed in dining on rodents and regretting his lack of a real-life education—he’s not sarcastic here—can only teach them how to milk a rat (roughly, bending someone’s thumb back as an alternative to brawling, which becomes a chain reaction for the boys and Conroy.) Slowly, he is being educated in their tradition: fast-talking, sharp, and hands-on.

There is more and better humor than I can list—it toughens and forms the “thick skin” of the book, so a student’s antic, a joke or a wry observation is on almost every page. Not entirely, however: Conroy needs the thick skin to keep from showing his indignation and disgust at their environment and the people responsible—both black and white. There are Ted Stone and his wife, both ardent racists and hippie bashers who just happen to teach Conroy the lay of the island and hold nearly every job on it, requiring him to kiss serious butt. Mrs. Brown, another teacher who is also black, has internalized their racism so far that she doesn’t speak up unless it’s to yell at her “babies” and whip them with straps she calls Dr. Discipline and Professor Medicine. The superintendents do nothing to ease his commute to the island—he finally gets them to pay for fuel, but little else. To reach kids who seem beyond it, he strands himself on sandbars for hours after misjudging the tides, takes chances with unnavigable fog, and in winter arrives drenched and nearly frostbitten to gleeful jibes of “White man got the blue feet.”

This is not your typical inspirational uplift, however, though the kids learn a bit of elementary math and easy reading. There are wonderfully-told inroads—meeting the Harlem globetrotters, taking a trip to the Beaufort mainland so host families can give them their first trick-or-treating, and buying tons of cheap souvenirs in Washington D.C.—but ultimately Conroy’s angry letters and bucking of the command chain prove too much.

I don’t usually read teacher stories because they tend to glorify things a bit—even in the first person—and at times the teacher is accorded a bit too much “miracle worker” credit. (Admittedly some of the treacle is the fault of the publishing blurbs, but still.) I’m all for happy endings, but I do wonder about the little efforts being made that aren’t producing minor celebrities, but just a daily life. Conroy’s battles against the elements and the time were certainly not little, but what I like (if that’s the right word, considering the circumstances) is his honesty with us and himself. Far from his vision of himself as an exiled poet, he realizes very quickly that his idea of simply reaching “meteoric reading levels” and new math, of “tough love” education as the great equalizer, is not enough on this scale—no better than untouched church donations of the classics, where “an old oyster-shucker could find Look Homeward Angel by Thomas Wolfe, The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner, For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway.”

Conroy is not denying that some "oyster-shucker" somewhere could eventually be a scholar of the classics. He is saying that the people of Yamacraw, more self-sufficient than he could ever be, have nevertheless been denied that chance—to him, it’s the wrong time and the neglect has been too long. He does not pity them, but regrets this lack of a choice for kids like Mary, who want to further their education and don’t know how. He is telling us what happens when there are no Torey Haydens or Louann Johnsons—when you keep yourself awake nights afterward wondering if your efforts really mattered or accomplished anything, and if your students will remember you. I can’t speak for Conroy or his students, but I can’t imagine how they’d forget him.


Recommend this product? Yes


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