Indeed, The Water is STILL Wide
In January I read my first Pat Conroy novel. Some friends recommended the book when they heard me lament about the public school system. The book “spoke” to me, and I just re-read it the first week of summer break; I felt like there were many aspects of the book I might have missed the first time around. In fact, with the second reading, I jotted down notes and marked pages.
The book is a memoir of Pat Conroy’s year teaching on the isolated island of Yamacraw, which is off the coast of South Carolina. Mr. Conroy is white, and a recent graduate from The Citadel. All the residents of the island are black, including the one other teacher.
When he embarks on his career adventure, Mr. Conroy is filled with hope, hubris, naivety, and good will– as all people in their early twenties should be. (Certainly I was that way!) Mr. Conroy and his friends think the world is good and that people are basically good. Mr. Conroy and his friends also have “delusions that [they] would somehow save the world” (p. 15). Teaching on an island cut off from the outside world appealed to Mr. Conroy’s altruistic side, so he asked for the assignment.
Mr. Conroy ends up getting an education of his own, along with a harsh dose of some cruel aspects of the world. He learns the inhabitants of the island have little regard for animals; he learns the inhabitants of the island believe in ghosts and spirits; he learns from the other teacher on the island that she feels like the only way to deal with the students is with corporal punishment—hitting them with a leather strap.
The cultural differences, though, can be expected. What Mr. Conroy has difficulty wrapping his head around are all the injustices and inequalities he sees in the education of the Yamacraw children. “Some of [the students] could barely write. Half of them were incapable of expressing even the simplest thought on paper. Three quarters of them could barely spell even the most elementary words” (p. 27). Many of his students could not write the alphabet; some did not know what 2 + 2 would equal; some did not know how old they were; some thought the Civil War was fought between the Germans and the Japanese; some could not answer what country they lived in; some did not know who George Washington was; some had never heard of the Atlantic Ocean (even though they lived on an island). Mr. Conroy continues on page 31 “…..the quality and condition of education on the island. It stunk.” As each day passes, Mr. Conroy “got madder and madder at the people responsible for the condition of these kids” (p. 36). Mr. Conroy also realizes “the job [he] had taken to assuage the demon of do-gooderism was a bit more titanic than anticipated” (p. 37).
Even though The Water is Wide was written about 3 decades ago, I find its content and message still ring true in many school districts today. Many of the injustices and inequalities mentioned in the book still exist in public education. I have taught in several school districts in Georgia, and there are enormous differences even within a school district; I have seen these inequalities firsthand. It is appalling, and we should be embarrassed and livid that these injustices and inequalities still exist 30 years after Pat Conroy’s books was written. All I can say is: Indeed, The Water is STILL Wide.
Anja Tigges, Ed.S.
Scott Elementary School
Atlanta Public Schools