42 pages • 1 hour readPat Conroy
A modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, SuperSummary offers high-quality Study Guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.
First published in 1972, novelist Pat Conroy’s book, The Water Is Wide: A Memoir, recounts his experiences teaching on an island off the South Carolina coast.
Get access to this full Study Guide and much more!
A young teacher, Pat considers the Vietnam War to be unjust and intends to join the Peace Corps in order to avoid being drafted. When he does not hear back about his application, he volunteers to teach on Yamacraw Island instead. In his first week, Pat is shocked by how little education the children have received. Some are illiterate, and some cannot count to ten. More than this, they are starved of basic knowledge of life beyond the confines of the island. They do not even know that they live in the United States. His fellow teacher, Mrs. Brown, has a radically different approach to teaching than Pat does. Although she is black herself, she insists that black children need extra discipline and advocates for beating them regularly. She tells Pat that his job is not to engage and inspire the kids, but simply to teach them the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic through rote learning and drilling.
Pat does not feel that he can challenge Mrs. Brown’s authority or teaching methods because of his own white guilt about his racist upbringing. However, he ignores Mrs. Brown’s advice. He refuses to use corporal punishment and finds fun ways to teach the children. He lets them sing and dance in class, shows them films, and introduces them to classical music. Soon, the children have a solid knowledge of key composers and their work, which they use to surprise patronizing, paternalistic white visitors. After a month, even the least educated children have mastered basic math and learned the alphabet.
The SuperSummary difference
Pat begins to feel lonely. He makes friends with Zeke Skimberry, the district maintenance man, and his wife, Ida. However, they live on the mainland. Pat struggles to find friends on the island. The black people see him as a figure of white authority, while the white people are invariably racist. One white man in particular, Ted Stone, fascinates Pat. Ted is an outdoorsman and can perform numerous practical tasks. He is also the self-declared “king” of the island, taking on all the official jobs and roles that Yamacraw has to offer. He is racist and deeply conservative; he opposes any sign of liberalism, “hippies,” and progressive politics. Pat has a strained and complicated relationship with Ted because he relies on Ted for various resources, including his dock and his radio—which is the only way of contacting the mainland.
Pat falls in love with and marries Barbara, a neighbor on the mainland, but this only makes his isolation more pronounced. Eventually, he decides that only seeing her and her young children on weekends is not enough, so he abandons his home on the island and begins commuting from the mainland every day. Pat also begins bringing his students to the mainland. Although the parents are initially afraid of letting their kids cross the water, Pat persuades them to let him take the children to a Halloween party. Although the white people on the mainland initially expected to meet a group of “savages,” they welcome the class warmly, and the children enjoy a fun, if chaotic, visit.
Pat organizes other trips, including one to Charleston to watch the Globetrotters and a visit to Washington, D.C. He also arranges for people from the mainland to visit the class. Slowly, he expands his students’ knowledge, both in academic subjects and of the world. He is open to teaching them about anything that will help prepare them for their inevitable migration from the island to the cities of the mainland.
Despite his passion and commitment, Pat is not popular with the district administration, who see him as challenging the social and racial status quo. They use the gas bill for his daily boat journeys to and from Yamacraw as an excuse to reprimand him. Pat, in turn, believes that the administration is neglecting the children and resents their lack of genuine interest in the children’s education. After a series of meetings and letters, the administration threatens Pat with redundancy, but he appeals to the school board, which takes his side. This embarrasses Dr. Piedmont and the other administrators, who grow determined to remove Pat.
After Pat takes a week’s work with the Desegregation Center of South Carolina in order to fund another school trip, Dr. Piedmont fires him. Pat again appeals to the board, but this time they reject his defense, partly because he has allowed some recent school graduates to stay in his home, upsetting the racist white neighborhood. Every black person on the island signs a petition asking the administration to reinstate Pat, and the parents stage a school strike. However, their efforts are unsuccessful. Pat takes his case to court and, for a while, it seems as though he will win. However, the judge affirms that the administration has the right to fire any teacher they do not find suitable. Pat loses his job and his valuable, remarkable relationship with the children.
By Pat Conroy