The original Prince of Tides milks a rat
Jan 7, 2007 (Updated Jan 8, 2007)
Review by wordhopscotch
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 Conroys The Prince of Tides. That turned a little ironic this time out: The Water Is Wide is Pat Conroys own memoir of his short stint as a teacherand one of only three white peopleon Yamacraw Island in the 60s. Nonetheless, his Tom persona permeates this book in descriptions of neglect so deplorable that absurdity is the last defenseliterally, sometimes you just have to laugh. (The southern way, I guess.)
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If Conroyhailed by various islanders as Conrack, Croy, Mr. Patroy, and Yes maamdidnt 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 quicklyhis 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 Conroys 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 hes anything but bored. He begins a rapid-fire riff of basic facts peppered with newscasts, Readers Digest classical music, and James Browns greatest hits. In answer, the studentsnow 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 educationhes not sarcastic herecan only teach them how to milk a rat (roughly, bending someones 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 listit toughens and forms the thick skin of the book, so a students 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 responsibleboth 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 doesnt speak up unless its 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 islandhe 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 inroadsmeeting 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 Conroys angry letters and bucking of the command chain prove too much.
I dont usually read teacher stories because they tend to glorify things a biteven in the first personand 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.) Im all for happy endings, but I do wonder about the little efforts being made that arent producing minor celebrities, but just a daily life. Conroys battles against the elements and the time were certainly not little, but what I like (if thats 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 scaleno 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 chanceto him, its 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 dont know how. He is telling us what happens when there are no Torey Haydens or Louann Johnsonswhen you keep yourself awake nights afterward wondering if your efforts really mattered or accomplished anything, and if your students will remember you. I cant speak for Conroy or his students, but I cant imagine how theyd forget him.
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