Pat Conroy introduces himself in this book, published in 1972, before writing several much acclaimed and widely read novels such as The Great Santini, The Lords of Discipline, and South of Broad. The Water is Wide is a reflection on a year of teaching middle school (1969-1970) on the culturally isolated Yamacraw (Daufuskie) Island, South Carolina. It’s a young man’s coming of age, reckoning with his military brat upbringing and the transformation of his traditional Southern White outlook to a mindset that was enormously progressive for that time and place.
As a young teacher, Conroy was challenged by the island’s culture and economics. His African-American students were accustomed to regular use of violence with each other, their families, and their animals. His colleague, Mrs. Brown, accepted the traditional White expectations of low ability and poor outcomes for these kids and the prescription of rote learning and discipline by the belt. Although Conroy was supposed to be teaching middle school, most of his students were woefully deficient in even the most rudimentary pieces of elementary education – they couldn’t write their names, say the alphabet, or find the location of their island on a map. The islanders led a withdrawn lifestyle after the failure of the island’s oyster beds, but were reluctant to let their kids go to the mainland for their first experience of Halloween, one of Conroy’s early projects. The school administration treated the island as a distant distraction from the needs of the mainland towns. Conroy met these situations with the righteousness of a committed young man, tested various strategies of engagement, avoidance and confrontation, and predictably met with varying degrees of success.
Conroy brings a remarkable clarity and maturity to a fairly fresh set of experiences, and he does it with humor and palpable images of the island and its people. He has a clear eye for his own growth as he gained respect for his students’ ability to deal with their reality and battled the administration for resources and flexibility. He also has a handle on his own rigidity that inevitably ended his teaching career; he picked an unwinnable dispute over gasoline and maintenance costs of the boat he used to commute to the island, but he would never have been successful with a school bureaucracy that was managing system-wide integration.
He earned my respect for his effort and creativity to give his students an awareness of life off the island, where many of them would eventually have to live. His experience came several years before broad-based programs like Teach for America but it points to some of the ways such programs may be able to support teaching in disadvantaged communities. Conroy ends the memoir with a hopeful forecast of racial acceptance in South Carolina that has only been partly realized by recent history but his story echoes with hope and possibility.
— Bill Smith