On Friday, March 4th, we lost a literary legend in South Carolina. Pat Conroy, the prolific author of the Lowcountry, succumbed to pancreatic cancer at his coastal home in Beaufort.
While many people will remember him for The Prince of Tides and The Great Santini, or several other outstanding tales based on his life, his early book, The Water is Wide, affected me most.
Both the book and movie, Conrack, came out as I studied to become a teacher. The story is based on his first year out of the Citadel when he taught on Daufuskie Island, a barrier island near the resort of Hilton Head that can be reached only by boat.
I was moved by his work with children who had little hope of a life beyond the isolation and poverty of their island. Children who were deemed unteachable. Conroy taught them classical music and how to swim. He introduced them to world events and located each on a map. He took them across the water to Beaufort, which must have seemed a paradise, and carried a group of boys to Charleston to see the Harlem Globetrotters.
I decided. This is what I wanted to do.
Eventually I moved to rural South Carolina where I was assigned, with nearly no materials and little support, to teach basic learners. After pleading for more books or other supplemental resources, my exasperated principal said, “Look, these students can’t learn. Your job is to babysit.”
Livid, I doubled down on providing the best instruction my time and talents could provide. My passion for teaching had been lit by Pat Conroy on Daufuskie Island where he’d found the same resistance.
As Conroy wrote of those who eventually fired him from his job—no, his vocation, “They were old men and could not accept the new sun rising out of the strange waters. The world was very different now.”
Yes, times changed. What educator today worth her salt doesn’t believe all children can learn? But it was Pat Conroy’s confidence in the value of impoverished, yet eager children that spurred me onward.
Rest in peace, Pat Conroy. You made me a better teacher and the world a better place.