The people on the island are black. And, my God, the hopelessness of teaching in a black school cut off from society by water, is an agony few people have experienced. (p. 234)
The Water is Wide came to me in an exchange with one of my nieces. We’ve started sending each other books we’ve read and want the other one to enjoy. “He’s kinda big deal around here [in Charleston, SC].” I had no idea.
If the only book Conroy ever wrote was The Water is Wide, he’d be a big deal to me. Because The Water is Wide resonates as though it was written last year, not in 1972 about experiences Conroy had teaching black students on an island separated from the rest of the world by a tidal river.
1969’s young teacher could be any teacher today. Passionate about changing his students’ outlook, teaching them to use their minds for more than just remembering the alphabet and the multiplication tables.
What he encounters is heart breaking. A black community with nothing, literally. A two-room schoolhouse filled with children K-12 who cannot read, do not know their alphabet, much less they are American citizens and their island is part of a country called USA. These children, and their parents, live a hardscrabble existence with no plumbing, no telephones, no books, and no hope.
It sounds like so many students in our contemporary era. Inner city kids who get passed on without learning anything on the way. Urban kids, of all races, with problems too large to be handled by a school bureaucracy still dominated by men.
I’ve seen first hand the poverty which keeps our children from getting any kind of education aside from survival. I’ve also seen the well-meaning white liberals who do the wrong thing because all their knowledge about kids like the ones in Conroy’s book is theoretical. On the other hand, I’ve seen what happens when no one wants to be bothered, only paying attention to the star athletes nurtured to get a scholarship at a big college and then go pro.
Conroy’s story is so familiar. He writes with accuracy about the stupidity of bureaucracy, the banal finality of racism, and the incredibly foolish ways willing students and passionate teachers are ignored.
There are many fascinating stories about how Conroy connected with his students, and their families. The reader goes on field trips off the island with them, flabbergasted at the things one takes for granted as common decency and sense. A little boy peeing in the middle of a square raises an eyebrow, until one realizes that on the island everyone pees where they are when they need. Their propriety is different.
Betsy DeVos would be horrified at the way these children behave. Horrified, and quick to throw some racist shade disguised in politically correct verbiage about school vouchers, charter schools and school choice. Completely missing the point.
35 years after this book was published, there’s just as much to be angry at, and baffled by. In 2017 we should know better, we should do better. Apparently, “we” don’t know and don’t care. Two days in to the new administration and it’s clear there’s a lot to resist coming our way. Pat Conroy’s book, The Water is Wide, is a reminder of just how bad it was, and still is, and just how much farther we have to go to reach an educated critical mass who can think their way through the many complex problems facing the world. Education may be the key, but people like Betsy DeVos are the lock.
For the Yamacraw children I can say little. I don’t think I changed the quality of their lives significantly or altered the inexorable fact they were imprisoned by the very circumstances of their birth.