Thursday, February 10, 2011


Gentle Readers,

The Highest Lola Seal of Approval goes to The Water Is Wide by Pat Conroy. I just finished rereading this beautiful book, written by my close personal friend Pat when he was a mere 24 years old (I know because he told me so himself).

So does Highest Lola Seal of Approval mean that Lola is higher than usual or does Highest pertain to the Seal of Approval? A point to ponder.

Anyhoo, Young Pat was teaching in Beaufort, South Carolina, where he went to high school, and awaiting word on his application to join the Peace Corps. When none came, he volunteered to teach where no one else wanted to go -- Yamacraw Island, just a short distance off the Carolina coast, yet very far in terms of differences (it was actually Daufuskie Island but Pat changed the name for the book).

He arrived to find children -- his was the only white face -- who had seldom left the island and had so little exposure to the outside world that they didn't know the water washing up on their very own shore was that of the Atlantic Ocean. Pat was teaching fifth through eighth graders, yet seven students didn't know the alphabet, four of them couldn't count to ten, and three couldn't spell their own names. School administrators had been happy to ignore this school for blacks on the other world of the island, but Pat will not allow his students to be neglected -- or beaten, as is the habit of the teacher for the younger students.

He fights to introduce the world to them, and then to introduce them to the world. Such a memoir could easily be condescending and patronizing -- oh, the poor little black chilluns saved by the kind White Man.

But Pat's goal as a teacher was to uplift his students and he uplifts them in his writing as well. These students have dignity.

As he takes us on this journey to the island with him, Pat's writing is simple and lovely:

Even though I was on Yamacraw, I was not of Yamacraw. My first overtures of friendship with the people on the island, although not rebuffed, failed to win me any friends with whom I felt completely comfortable. I thought constantly of my friends in Beaufort. Consciously I began to wish for a way to extricate myself from a job and a situation I felt incapable of handling. The loneliness was beginning to shred my nerves. I became distracted with myself and my vainglorious attempt to act as a symbolic bridge between the children of Yamacraw and the outside world. I was impatient because I had failed to turn illiterates into lovers of the great classics in the span of a single month. 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 god-damn thing. Each had come into the world imprisoned by a river and by a system which ensured his destruction the moment he uttered his first cry by his mother's side.

But Pat finds throughout the course of the year that he can find success in one small victory after another, and ultimately, he pulls a successful writing career out of a failed -- but in many ways triumphant -- teaching career.

Pat's year on Yamacraw kinda makes me think of Thoreau at Walden Pond and measuring the depth of the pond and the measurements the powers that be try to make with the internal and infernal testing in the schools. I've heard too many complaints for years that teachers "teach to the test" and I know it's often true. We need to free up our best teachers to simply do their jobs, and attract the best by paying them well, and the students who are at all capable of learning will make progress. Sometimes teachers need to be able to think and act outside of the box to reach the hardest to reach students.

This memoir is an inspiration and I encourage you to read The Water Is Wide. I first read it many years ago and it was well worth rereading. It was also made into a charming movie called Conrack, which I have not seen in a very long time. I wonder if it still holds up. I recall Jon Voight being extremely good in it, as were the children who played the students.

And I also learned that Pat and I have something else in common: We both hate mice, which he calls rats. If he had a serious acquaintance with rats, mice might not bother him quite as much. I'd rather be harassed by a mouse than a rat, but I hate either one. At least I've never had a rat in the house. The dogs dispatch the bastards before they get that far. Then they leave the rat at the back door for me to cook for my dinner.

What a gift!

Infinities of love,


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