The Water Is Wide

A Memoir
Trade Paperback

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A “miraculous” (Newsweek) human drama, based on a true story, from the renowned author of The Prince of Tides and The Great Santini
The island is nearly deserted, haunting, beautiful. Across a slip of ocean lies South Carolina. But for the handful of families on Yamacraw Island, America is a world away. For years the people here lived proudly from the sea, but now its waters are not safe. Waste from industry threatens their very existence unless, somehow, they can learn a new way. But they will learn nothing without someone to teach them, and their school has no teacher—until one man gives a year of his life to the island and its people.
Praise for The Water Is Wide
“Miraculous . . . an experience of joy.”Newsweek
“A powerfully moving book . . . You will laugh, you will weep, you will be proud and you will rail . . . and you will learn to love the man.”Charleston News and Courier
“A hell of a good story.”The New York Times
“Few novelists write as well, and none as beautifully.”Lexington Herald-Leader
“[Pat] Conroy cuts through his experiences with a sharp edge of irony. . . . He brings emotion, writing talent and anger to his story.”—Baltimore Sun


“Miraculous . . . an experience of joy.”Newsweek
“A powerfully moving book . . . You will laugh, you will weep, you will be proud and you will rail . . . and you will learn to love the man.”Charleston News and Courier
“A hell of a good story.”The New York Times
“Few novelists write as well, and none as beautifully.”Lexington Herald-Leader
“[Pat] Conroy cuts through his experiences with a sharp edge of irony. . . . He brings emotion, writing talent and anger to his story.”—Baltimore Sun


Chapter One

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 a 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. Beaufort, South Carolina's superintendent, Dr. Henry Piedmont, had been in Beaufort for only a year when I went to see him. He had a reputation of being tough, capable, and honest. A friend told me that Piedmont took crap from no man.

I walked into his office, introduced myself, chatted briefly, then told him I wanted to teach on Yamacraw Island. He gave me a hard stare and said, "Son, you are a godsend." I sat in the chair rigidly analyzing my new status. "I have prayed at night," he continued, "for an answer to the problems confronting Yamacraw Island. I have worried myself almost sick. And to think you would walk right into my office and offer to teach those poor colored children on that island. It just goes to show you that God works in mysterious ways."

"I don't know if God had anything to do with it, Doctor. I applied for the Peace Corps and haven't heard. Yamacraw seemed like a viable alternative."

"Son, you can do more good at Yamacraw than you could ever do in the Peace Corps. And you would be helping Americans, Pat. And I, for one, think it's very important to help Americans."

"So do I, Doctor."

We chatted on about the problems of the island. Then he said, "You mentioned that God had nothing to do with your decision to go to Yamacraw, Pat. You remind me of myself when I was your age. Of course, I came up the hard way. My folks worked in a mill. Good people, both of them. Simple people, but God-fearing. My mother was a saint. A saint on earth. I worked in the mill, too. Even after I graduated from college, I went back to the mill in a supervisory capacity. But I wasn't happy, Pat. Something was missing. One night I was working late at the mill. I stepped outside the mill and looked up at the stars. I went toward the edge of the forest and fell to my knees. I prayed to Jesus and asked him what he wanted me to do in my life. And do you know what?"

"No, sir, what?"

Then Dr. Piedmont leaned forward in his seat, his eyes transformed with spiritual intensity.

"He told me what to do that very night. He told me, 'Henry, leave the mill. Go into education and help boys to go to college. Help them to be something. Go back to school, Henry, and get an advanced degree.' So I went to Columbia University, one of the great universities of the world. I emerged with a doctorate. I was the first boy from my town who was ever called Doctor."

I added wittily, "That's nice, Doctor."

"You remind me of that boy I was, Pat. Do you know why you came to me today?"

"Yes, sir, I want to teach at Yamacraw."

"No, son. Do you know the real reason?"

"No, sir, I guess I don't."

"Jesus," he said, as if he just found out the stone had been rolled back from the tomb. "You're too young to realize it now, but Jesus made you come to me today."

I left his office soon afterward. He had been impressive. He was a powerful figure, very controlled, almost arrogantly confident in his abilities. He stared at me during our entire conversation. From experience I knew his breed. The 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. He was a product of the upcountry of South Carolina, the Bible Belt, sand-lot baseball, knife fights under the bleachers. His pride in his doctorate was almost religious. It was the badge that told the world that he was no longer a common man. Intellectually, he was a thoroughbred. Financially, he was secure. And Jesus was his backer. Jesus, with the grits-and-gravy voice, the shortstop on the mill team, liked ol' Henry Piedmont.

Yamacraw is an island off the South Carolina mainland not far from Savannah, Georgia. The island is fringed with the green, undulating marshes of the southern coast; shrimp boats ply the waters around her and fishermen cast their lines along her bountiful shores. Deer cut through her forests in small silent herds. The great southern oaks stand broodingly on her banks. The island and the waters around her teem with life. There is something eternal and indestructible about the tide-eroded shores and the dark, threatening silences of the swamps in the heart of the island. Yamacraw is beautiful because man has not yet had time to destroy this beauty.

The twentieth century has basically ignored the presence of Yamacraw. The island is populated with black people who depend on the sea and their small farms for a living. Several white families live on the island in a paternalistic, but in many ways symbiotic, relationship with their neighbors. Only one white family actively participates in island life to any perceptible degree. The other three couples have come to the island to enjoy their retirement in the obscurity of the island's remotest corners. Thus far, no bridge connects the island with the mainland, and anyone who sets foot on the island comes by water. The roads of the island are unpaved and rutted by the passage of ox carts, still a major form of transportation. The hand pump serves up questionable water to the black residents who live in their small familiar houses. Sears, Roebuck catalogues perform their classic function in the crudely built privies, which sit, half-hidden, in the tall grasses behind the shacks. Electricity came to the island several years ago.

There is something unquestionably moving about the line of utility poles coming across the marsh, moving perhaps because electricity is a bringer of miracles and the journey of the faceless utility poles is such a long one--and such a humane one. But there are no telephones (electricity is enough of a miracle for one century). To call the island you must go to the Beaufort Sheriff's Office and talk to the man who works the radio. Otherwise, Yamacraw remains aloof and apart from the world beyond the river.

It is not a large island, nor an important one, but it represents an era and a segment of history that is rapidly dying in America. The people of the island have changed very little since the Emancipation Proclamation. Indeed, many of them have never heard of this proclamation. They love their island with genuine affection but have watched the young people move to the city, to the lands far away and far removed from Yamacraw. The island is dying, and the people know it.

In the parable of Yamacraw there was a time when the black people supported themselves well, worked hard, and lived up to the sacred tenets laid down in the Protestant ethic. Each morning the strong young men would take to their bateaux and search the shores and inlets for the large clusters of oysters, which the women and old men in the factory shucked into large jars. Yamacraw oysters were world famous. An island legend claims that a czar of Russia once ordered Yamacraw oysters for an imperial banquet. The white people propagate this rumor. The blacks, for the most part, would not know a czar from a fiddler crab, but the oysters were good, and the oyster factories operating on the island provided a substantial living for all the people. Everyone worked and everyone made money.

Then a villain appeared. It was an industrial factory situated on a knoll above the Savannah River many miles away from Yamacraw. The villain spewed its excrement into the river, infected the creeks, and as silently as the pull of the tides, the filth crept to the shores of Yamacraw. As every good health inspector knows, the unfortunate consumer who lets an infected oyster slide down his throat is flirting with hepatitis. Someone took samples of the water around Yamacraw, analyzed them under a microscope, and reported the results to the proper officials. Soon after this, little white signs were placed by the oyster banks forbidding anyone to gather the oysters. Ten thousand oysters were now as worthless as grains of sand. No czar would order Yamacraw oysters again. The muddy creatures that had provided the people of the island with a way to keep their families alive were placed under permanent quarantine.

Since a factory is soulless and faceless, it could not be moved to understand the destruction its coming had wrought. When the oysters became contaminated, the island's only industry folded almost immediately. The great migration began. A steady flow of people faced with starvation moved toward the cities. They left in search of jobs. Few cities had any intemperate demand for professional oyster-shuckers, but the people were somehow assimilated. The population of the island diminished considerably. Houses surrendered their tenants to the city and signs of sudden departure were rife in the interiors of deserted homes. Over 300 people left the island. They left reluctantly, but left permanently and returned only on sporadic visits to pay homage to the relatives too old or too stubborn to leave. As the oysters died, so did the people.

My neck has lightened several shades since former times, or at least I like to think it has. My early years, darkened by the shadows and regional superstitions of a bona fide cracker boy, act as a sobering agent during the execrable periods of self-righteousness that I inflict on those around me. Sometimes it is good for me to reflect on the Neanderthal period of my youth, when I rode in the backseat of a '57 Chevrolet along a night-blackened Carolina road hunting for blacks to hit with rotten watermelons tossed from the window of the speeding car, as they walked the shoulder of thin backroads. We called this intrepid form of entertainment "nigger-knocking," and it was great fun during the carnival of blind hatred I participated joyfully in during my first couple of years in high school.

Those were the years when the word nigger felt good to my tongue, for my mother raised her children to say colored and to bow our heads at the spoken name of Jesus. My mother taught that only white trash used the more explosive, more satisfying epithet to describe black people. Nigger possessed the mystery and lure of forbidden fruit and I overused it in the snickering clusters of white friends who helped my growing up.

The early years were nomadic ones. Dad's pursuit of greatness in the Marine Corps carried us into some of the more notable swamplands of the East Coast. I attended Catholic schools with mystical names like the Infant of Prague and the Annunciation, as Dad transferred from Marine base to desolate Marine base, or when we retired to my mother's family home in Atlanta when the nation called my father to war. Mom's people hailed originally from the northeast mountains of Alabama, while Dad's greased the railroad cars in Chicago, but attitudinally they could have used the same sheet at a Klan rally.

I loved the smooth-watered fifties, when I worried about the top-ten tunes and the homecoming queen, when I looked to Elvis for salvation, when the sharp dichotomy between black and white lay fallow and unchallenged, and when the World Series still was the most critical event of the year. The sixties brought this spindly-legged dream to its knees and the fall of the dream buried the joy of that blue-eyed youth forever.

Yet there were days that haunted the decade and presaged the tumultuous changes of the later sixties. By some miracle of chance, I was playing a high school basketball game in Greensboro, North Carolina, on the day that black students entered a dime store for the first nationally significant sit-in demonstration. I was walking past the store on the way to my hotel when I heard the drone of the angry white crowd. Word spread along the street that the niggers were up to something, and a crowd started milling around the store. With rolled-up sleeves and the Brylcreem look of the period, the mob soon became a ludicrous caricature of an entire society. The women had sharp, aquiline noses. I remember that. Everyone was surprised and enraged by the usurpation of this inalienable Caucasian right to park one's ass on a leather stool and drink a Coke. I moved quickly out of the area, following a Conroy law of survival that says that restless mobs have a way of drawing trouble and cops--although the cops would not have bothered me on this day, I realized later. It would be nice to report that this event transformed me into a crusader for civil rights, but it did not. It did very little to me.

I moved to Beaufort, South Carolina, in the early sixties, a town fed by warm salt tides and cooled by mild winds from the sea; a somnolent town built on a high bluff where a river snaked fortuitously. I was tired of moving every year, of changing home and environment with every new set of orders, of uprooting simply because my father was a nomad traveling under a different name and occupation. So we came to Beaufort, a town I grew to love with passion and without apology for its serenity, for its splendidly languid pace, and for its profound and infinite beauty. It was a place of hushed, fragrant gardens, silent streets, and large antebellum houses. My father flew jets in its skies and I went to the local segregated high school, courted the daughter of the Baptist minister, and tried to master the fast break and the quick jump shot. I lived in the security of a town founded in the sixteenth century, but in the world beyond it walked John F. Kennedy, the inexorable movement of black people coming up the road in search of the promised American grail, the television performances of Bull Connor, the snarling dogs, the fire hoses, the smoking names of Montgomery, Columbus, Monroe, and Birmingham.

Having cast my lot with Beaufort, I migrated to college seventy miles up the road. I entered The Citadel, the military college of South Carolina, where for four years I marched to breakfast, saluted my superiors, was awakened by bugles; and continued my worship of the jock, the basketball, and the school fight song, "Dixie." For four years I did not think about the world outside the gates. Myopic and color blind, I could not be a flashy, ascotted pilot like my father, so I opted for teaching and Beaufort.

At graduation I headed back down Highway 17 to begin my life teaching in the same high school that had spewed me forth several years before. But there was a difference this time: the purity of the student body was forever tainted. Thanks to the dastardly progression of law, black students now peppered the snow-white Elysium that once had harbored me.

Reader's Guide

1. How might Pat Conroy have handled the conflict with Bennington and Piedmont differently? In what ways was the outcome a foregone conclusion?

 2. If Mrs. Brown was ashamed to be black, why did she teach on Yamacraw? Were there any instances when you thought Pat should have listened to her? 

3.To what extent have we moved beyond the racism and segregation of the 1960s, in society and in our schools? How far do we still have to go?

 4. Would today’s litigation-obsessed society allow teachers to do the things that Pat does for his students? Why or why not? 

5. How has modernization affected other rural or remote places like Yamacraw? 

6. Conroy uses some unorthodox teaching methods with his students. Are they effective? Why or why not? How would they work today in our educational culture of testing and accountability? 

7.Why is it so important to Conroy that the children see and experience the outside world? If you were to design a field trip for them, where would you take them and why? 

8.Trace the evolution of Conroy’s racial views and attitudes throughout the book. What are key events in that evolution? 

9. While he could and did have an impact on the children’s lives, what might he or others have done to improve the lives of the adults on Yamacraw? 

10. Politicians and the press often like to blame the ills of public education on teachers. To what extent is poor teaching responsible for those ills? What other factors are involved, and how might those be remedied? 

Q & A

Dawn Marie Moss, a Teacher for Gwinnet
County Public Schools, Atlanta,
Talks About
The Water Is Wide

After spending two years teaching civics at the same, now uneasily integrated, high school that he attended, Pat Conroy’s “strange urges and a vague, restless energy,” influenced by the national unrest of 1968, propel him into the office of Dr. Henry Piedmont, superinten - dent of Beaufort, South Carolina, schools, to apply for a teaching position in the two-room schoolhouse on Yamacraw, an island that “the twentieth century has basically ignored.” Populated predominantly by poor African Americans, the island is accessible only by boat, separated from the mainland by saltwater marshes and about a hundred years. Dr. Piedmont calls Pat a “godsend” and it doesn’t take long to discover why: He is the only person willing to take the job. “Low performing” (in today’s parlance) does not begin to describe the students on Yamacraw. Most of them can’t read or do simple arithmetic, and those responsible for their education–the school board, Piedmont, his deputy superintendent, Ezra Bennington, and the island’s other teacher, Mrs. Brown–are either too apathetic or too entrenched in the segregated past to care about changing the status quo. They are not quite prepared for the idealistic young Pat Conroy, who is determined to draw his students out into the world beyond Yamacraw and to wrench the school system out of the Jim Crow era. 

The Water Is Wide has served as an inspiration for an untold number of teachers since it was first published in 1972. For all devoted readers, books serve as memory triggers, returning us to specific eras of our lives. As the summer of 1991 began its humid descent over Georgia, I found myself at the proverbial crossroads of my life. My first marriage was lurching toward the cliff over which it would eventually tumble, while the next three months stretched interminably ahead before I would resume graduate school classes and begin my teaching practicum in the fall. I had a list of books “about teaching” from one of my graduate professors that would guide my summer reading, so, appropriately armed with a copy of Pat Conroy’s The Water Is Wide, I pointed my little Honda toward Charleston and took off for my first-ever solo vacation. 

I had in fact already fallen in love with the South Carolina Low Country after reading The Prince of Tides and all the rest of his books over the previous half-dozen years. Charleston did not disappoint. As I meandered up and down the historic city’s tree-shaded streets and gaped at the stunning homes along East Bay and the Battery, The Water Is Wide was my sole companion, diverting me from the reality that awaited back in Atlanta. During those four days I spent reading this book in Charleston, the first of many days I would spend there in the years to come, I began to understand that being a teacher is more than being paid to read books or having summers off. If you do it right– with passion and integrity and energy–you realize very quickly that you will earn every minute of every summer through sweat, tears, and sleepless nights. But a Wall Street banker could never hope to find greater rewards in such tiny baby steps of progress. 

Most young teachers would have quit after the first day that Pat has on Yamacraw. The mind-numbing underachievement he discovers in his students has sent many teachers scurrying for corporate jobs in quiet offices at twice the pay, and who could blame them? The fact that he comes back the next day and the next and the one after that is testament to Pat’s desire, not only “to assuage the demon of dogooderism,” but also to give those children a fighting chance at a better life. He knows that Yamacraw does not hold on to its children anymore because there is nothing there for them, but their lives will not be much better in the city if they leave the island illiterate and innumerate. He may have embarked on the adventure for what he thinks are selfish reasons, but once he comes to know the children and their situations, educating them for a future becomes his crusade. The ongoing condescension and apathy of Bennington, Piedmont, and the school board, along with the beatings and humiliation inflicted by Mrs. Brown, only serve to crystallize Pat’s anger at the injustices perpetrated on Yamacraw’s schoolchildren. He is teaching fifth through eighth grades: How is it that there are seven students who cannot recite the alphabet, four who cannot count to ten, and three who cannot spell their names? The travesty of eighteen children believing that John Kennedy was the first president or that the earth is the center of the universe should bother anyone, but for a teacher like Pat, it is indefensible. Does he set his sights too high? Probably. But that’s what conscientious teachers do, and when we realize we can’t save everyone, as Pat does, we still keep trying anyway. 

The suburban, affluent school district outside Atlanta in which I teach appears to be far removed from the isolated, poverty-stricken world of Yamacraw Island, but the two have more in common than you would think. Although my students take gifted and advanced placement classes and enjoy many economic advantages, they are not all that different from Pat’s. Their parents divorce, disappear, and drink too much and too often. The kids prefer over my voice the music piped into their ears from their iPods, even though the singer might be Jay-Z rather than James Brown. They laugh and make fun of each other and dream about the future, just like Prophet and Big C and Mary. Kids are kids, regardless of whether they are college bound or vocational track, their families are rich or poor, or they are black, white, or brown. The sermonizers who lament “kids today” should step into any classroom anywhere in America to see the determination, ambition, and hope that I encounter daily and that Pat Conroy discovered forty years ago in that island schoolhouse. 

A wise teacher told me that I have to decide daily how much hypocrisy I am willing to live with that day. How many hoops am I willing to jump through just so that I can close the door and do what I do best: teach kids? On some days I can swallow a lot of hypocrisy and jump through every hoop thrown my way, while on others none at all. Pat’s struggles with Piedmont and Bennington and Mrs. Brown over what is right for the island children teach a hard lesson in dashed idealism. He knows that the way to teach his students and open their world is not through the mildewy textbooks or the beatings that Mrs. Brown employs but by reaching into their own lives and connecting to the things they care about. Teachers search for those connections every day, and although the rare student over the years may cause us to yearn for the days of corporal punishment, thankfully it’s no longer an option. These days we just like to beat our students bloody with tests. If the politicians and administrators would bother to ask us teachers, we could tell them that testing ad infinitum will not improve reading scores one whit, just as Pat knows that plodding through those handme- down texts will not help Prophet count any better or give Mary more self-confidence. Unfortunately, he had not met that wise teacher I know.  

So today, eighteen years after my first reading, I am a graduate student once again, and The Water Is Wide still resonates with those same lessons. I’m definitely older, hopefully a bit wiser, and certainly no longer the naïve idealist I was then. As Pat learns so painfully, I know that standing on principle isn’t always an option, that I don’t always have all the answers, and that I am doing exactly what I am supposed to do. 

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