My two older sons and I saw the movie "Conrack" soon after its release in 1974. Based on Pat Conroy's memoir, "The Water is Wide," the movie portrayed the challenges of a young, white schoolteacher, played by Jon Voight, who volunteered in 1969 to teach in a two-room, all-black school on "Yamacraw Island," the fictional name given Daufuskie Island, now highly developed with golf courses, a residential club, vacation homes and docks for private yachts.
By chance, I saw the movie recently on a cable channel and found it as moving and provocative now as it was then. This viewing prompted me to read Conroy's memoir. Sadly, the movie is not available in a DVD format compatible with U.S. players.
In "The Water in Wide," Conroy, fired with reformist zeal, gave up his job as a high school teacher in Beaufort, S.C., to move to Yamacraw Island, inhabited predominately by impoverished African-American families, many of whom spoke a distinctive Gullah dialect. A once-prosperous oyster industry had collapsed several years earlier after a chemical plant polluted the beds, leaving the residents in a subsistence economy.
Conroy's class included children of middle-school age. Several students could not read; a few could not count to 10. The school system dictated strict adherence to a curriculum devoted to drilling "basics" into brains of students. The school's principal repeatedly chided students on their lack of learning and liberally used a leather belt to enforce discipline. The district superintendent was committed to the status quo, which meant keeping the students in their place. The twosome tried to block every innovation utilized by Conroy.
Seeing the futility of the standard curriculum, Conroy used other means to capture his students' attention. Finding a movie projector, he showed movies to stimulate discussion. A phonograph and tape recorder found in a dusty closet provided opportunities for music and creative narratives composed by students. Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, supplemented by Conroy's introduction that the opening chords represented "death knocking on your door," was a student favorite. Useless, outdated textbooks remained unopened in desks as Conroy developed other pathways to thinking in a deeply superstitious culture.
Most of the students had never left the island, which had neither bridge nor ferry service. The water and marshland assured the physical and cultural isolation of the residents. Conroy arranged an overnight trip to Beaufort so his students could for the first time celebrate Halloween with costumes and trick-or-trick forays into predominantly white neighborhoods.
In the spring, Conroy took his class to Washington, D.C., traipsing to the Smithsonian National Gallery, Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument and the National Zoo, which was the biggest hit for the students. After the spring term, he took a smaller group of students to a retreat on the mainland, where he taught the boys how to swim; he could never overcome the girls' fear of water. Before each excursion, Conroy had to overcome qualms of parents and objections of the principal and superintendent.
When the superintendent fired him for insubordination and other trumped-up charges at the end of the school year, Conroy appealed to the school board, which rejected the action.
At the beginning of his second year on the island, Conroy was again dismissed. Parents and students staged a boycott. The superintendent threatened jail and fines for protesters. Conroy urged an end to the protest and retired to the mainland to write his memoir. Other memorable books followed in his distinguished career. He died earlier this year.
Would a Pat Conroy be tolerated in failing schools today?
Children of all races and ethnicities can be as isolated today in urban housing projects, impoverished neighborhoods and collapsing towns as the children of Yamacraw Island in the 1960s. Poverty and inadequate education create invisible barriers for children to participate in the opportunities enjoyed by so many in thriving communities. In a two-tiered, public education system, poorer schools lack books for their libraries, internet access and adequate counseling for the complex problems of students. A child's postal ZIP code should not determine his opportunities in life.
Poor rates for graduation and readiness for post-high school education suggest that standard curricula should be rethought. A single approach to instruction may not fit every school. The challenge is to find a formula that will reach every child and set him or her on a pathway to lifelong learning.
Read "The Water is Wide." It presents a challenge for all us.
Contact Clif Cleaveland at ccleaveland@timesfree press.com.