The Water Is Wide Summary

Pat Conroy

The Water Is Wide

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The Water Is Wide Summary

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American author Pat Conroy wrote about his experience as a middle school teacher for impoverished children in the southern United States in the memoir The Water is Wide (1972). The work was praised for its humor and accurate portrayals of a young teacher’s strengths and weaknesses. It won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for its efforts to add nuance to public discussions on race and education. Conroy is also well-known for his novel The Great Santini, a fictionalized representation of his upbringing in a strict, southern household with a military patriarch. Both The Water is Wide and The Great Santini served as the basis for future major motion picture films.

The themes of The Water Is Wide include systematic poverty and racism, the empowering potential of a real education, and devotion to social justice.

In 1969, Conroy aims to join the Peace Corps rather than be drafted by the US government and forced to fight in Vietnam, a war he does not believe is just. When his application to the Peace Corps receives no response, Conroy decides to be proactive and find a teaching job that would recuse him from the war effort. The memoir opens with Conroy walking into the office of Henry Piedmont, the Superintendent of Schools for Beaufort, South Carolina, asking for a job.

For the past year, Conroy has taught high school English in his hometown of Beaufort, but after the shooting of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968, Conroy wants to help the fight of black people for social, economic, and education equality. Conroy applies for and is extended an offer to teach predominantly black children in seventh and eighth grades. Superintendent Piedmont is flabbergasted and overjoyed that Conroy would volunteer to teach at such a “difficult” school. The previous teacher was there for thirty-nine years, and the Superintendent has had no success in finding a replacement.

Conroy teaches in an impoverished town of mostly black people near the South Carolina coast on an island called Yamacraw. The school district offers Conroy a boat that he takes to commute there each day. All of the roads are made of dirt; there is no electricity; there are also no bridges to connect to the mainland. The town is so small that he will have to teach all subjects, not just English composition. The island was a slave transportation center, and its dark history lingers on the town’s children.

Conroy, who was born in Atlanta and raised in South Carolina, reviews how his own upbringing encouraged racist actions on his part as a teenager. After college, he promised himself to make up for his misdeeds.

Conroy is repeatedly amazed by the apathy and ignorance that the students are encouraged to possess. They do not know many basic facts beyond the island, such as who the US President is or even that they belonged to a country called the United States.

The new teacher realizes that the children will not be able to get much from the books they are assigned to read (almost all of the books are donated and meant for adult audiences). So, for most of the year, he abandons them, encouraging more interactive participation and discussion to encourage their brains to fire. Conroy also arranges frequent trips to cities on the mainland. While these frequent trips spark the curiosity of the children necessary for learning, Conroy’s fellow teachers and administrative managers are suspicious of his efforts, frequently mocking them as ineffective.

The school is lorded over by a black principal, Ms. Brown, who believes she is better than the school children and their parents and does not want the school curriculum to change. Unlike most inhabitants on the island, she has some Native American ancestry and has lighter skin than everyone else. Throughout the year, Conroy shows respect to those administrators who earn his respect; Conroy does not feel a need to meet all of someone’s demands just because that someone is in a position of power— this includes Ms. Brown. Conroy also refuses to hit the children, which had been standard practice on the island. He shows his students famous films and documentaries, which Ms. Brown contends is a giant waste of time and resources.

Conroy’s fiery optimism eventually leads him to be nudged from the school after one year. Fortunately, enough parents support him that they petition to keep him on as a teacher for one more year. However, Conroy is not perfect—he has been late to class on several occasions because of the commute, and he has taken time off to lobby at the Desegregation Center (though he did have a substitute in his absence).

One day, Conroy arranges a field trip to the nation’s capital. Along with other similarly optimistic young teachers, he leads the fight against a white system that believes all black children can only (and should only) achieve middling results throughout their academic careers.

Despite his efforts and results with students, Conroy is once again fired. Conroy goes to court to fight the dismissal, but a judge concludes that the school district was operating within its rights in firing Conroy; however, on a personal level, the judge notes that he does not believe the school district has adequate reason to fire Conroy.

His firing and separation from his students leave Conroy torn. He wonders if he should have acted more servile around administrators just as a means to keep his job with the end goal of truly helping students who rarely encounter a teacher who believes they are capable of great success.

He ultimately feels that his effect on the children was minimal. But he is grateful he was able to spend a year with them, to do what he could, and to learn first-hand about one of America’s prominent institutions that requires a lot of reform.