The Water Is Wide: Pat Conroy’s View of Education, Leadership, and Humility

Brown vs Board flickr_TradingCardsNPS

In previous posts, I’ve given excerpts from The Water Is Wide (by Pat Conroy), including thoughts on Past Regrets and Lessons on Charity, Racism, and the Shackles of Slavery. In the final post in this series, I’ll relay to you what Conroy learned about education, leadership, and one’s own battle with pride.

Especially since I’ve been in Allendale, I have been learning about these same three things as well.

On Education

As he began the year teaching on Yamacraw (Daufuskie) Island, Conroy knew that he needed to give his students (a single group of 5th – 8th graders) high expectations and exposure. They listened to world news on the radio, and he would point to the places on a map and teach additional facts (most of which were nearly incredible to this group of children who had never been further away that Savannah, GA). Forgoing the use of textbooks (most of them were illiterate), he taught them classical music to inflate their egos with much-needed confidence.

Just as important as the material is the method of delivery. And in this case, a high amount of energy was required.

“The teacher must always maintain an air of insanity, or of eccentricity out of control, if he is to catch and hold the attention of his students. The teacher must always be on the attack, looking for new ideas, changing worn-out tactics, and never, ever falling into patters that lead to student ennui.”

After one month of teaching, Conroy experienced doubt that is common among educators — whether or not he is truly making a difference.

“I had tired of measuring victories in terms of whether Prophet had learned the alphabet or Sidney could spell his name. Nor could I shake the feeling that everything I taught or achieved was a worthless, needless effort that ultimately would not affect the quality of my students’ lives.

What could I teach them or give them that would substantially alter the course of their lives? Nothing. Not a goddam thing. Each had come into the world imprisoned by a river and by a system which insured his destruction the moment he uttered his first cry by his mother’s side.”

But as the year went on, “Conrack” (as his students called him) began to gain a better perspective. If you are a Type-A perfectionist (like me), you want to fix everything, and fix it quickly. But as a mentor told me a couple of years ago, changing a community is like Pouring in Good, Clear Water.

Conroy writes,

“I was slowly learning to measure the importance of small victories. In fact, I was coming to the painful conclusion that all my victories would seem miniscule and trivial compared to my expectations at the beginning of the year.”

And he detested how others (especially his principal and fellow teacher on the island) often treated these students. On observing how his co-worker yelled at and beat students, Conroy opined,“No man or woman has the right to humiliate children, even in the sacrosanct name of education.”

On Leadership

The principal was only one of the leaders that he struggled with. Some, like the principal, were selfishly focused on achieving and maintaining their own statuses. Others, however, were ignorant, ineffectual, or just plain inept.

Conroy was fired before he could return for his second year on Yamacraw Island. He realized this about the two administrators who fired him:

“[They] were not evil men. They were just predictably mediocre. Their dreams and aspirations had the grandeur, scope, and breadth of postage stamps. . . . They did not feel the need for redemption, because they had already been redeemed. The only thing they could not control was their fear.”

Many people (yours truly included) are just afraid of change. Sometimes we may avoid the loss of power and control, and sometimes we try to avoid the unknown. While I may be struggling with my current situation, I’d sooner accept that than worry about being able to deal with what comes next. This fear paralyzes, and tempts us to maintain the status quo.

On Humility & Self-Respect

My inner self really doesn’t like to compromise. I know I am right, and I want things to go my way. Sigh….

I want to be upfront and honest, and to shoot straight. I don’t want to play any games. But whether that is right or wrong isn’t necessarily the point. I have a choice to make: I can make a point, or I can make a difference. Too often I choose the former.

“I saw the necessity of living and accepting bullcrap in my midst. It was everywhere. In teachers’ manuals, in the platitudes muttered by educators, in school boards, in the community, and most significantly, in myself. . . .

As a bona fide ass-kisser, I might lose a measure of self-respect, but I could be teaching and helping kids. As it is, I have enough self-respect to fertilize Yankee Stadium, but I am not doing a thing for anybody. I could probably still be with the Yamacraw kids had I conquered my ego.”

So, what will I do? Will I lead with my pride, or will I lead with a willingness to let others succeed? Will I seek to be heard, or will I seek to love?

What will I do? What will you do?

Related Links:

**image courtesy of TradingCardsNPS via flickr


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4 responses to “The Water Is Wide: Pat Conroy’s View of Education, Leadership, and Humility”

  1. Catherine Campbell says :

    I taught on Daufuskie for 13 years. Pat conroy was 12 years ahead of me and he left a very positive effect on the school when I was there. I taught the children of the children that Pat Conroy taught. Catherine Cambpell

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