Conrack: An Unconventional Teacher

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While millions tuned into the Grammys last night, I re-watched a movie I haven’t seen in some 20 plus years. I’d had my fill of Kanye Lost from his weekend Twitter begging like a wayward Prosperity Gospel preacher on a midnight binge.  Good for Taylor Swift for telling young girls and boys that it is “hard work” that makes dreams come true and leaves a person feeling good about themselves. That’s one thing Kanye never counted on: Taylor having a voice strong enough to tell him to shove off.

We always told our children that a healthy self-esteem comes from doing good work. I made wicked fun of the pyschobabble doled out in the 90s about how special every child was. “Yeah, you’re special. Just like everybody else in the world,” I pronounced. My children learned irony at an early age.

With two educators as parents, they learned the value of questioning, the importance of never taking things at surface value – not even their faith – and the need to live a life intentionally. In our household, Saturday morning entertainment was everyone crawling into bed to hear Dad read the newspaper stories, especially whatever column Mom had written that week.  Sunday afternoon dinners included discussions about Bill and Hillary Clinton – yes, that’s how long those two have been around – and the AIDS epidemic, and the unrealistic mandates of Oregon’s CIM/CAM program (Who remembers that mess?).

We celebrated holidays nobody else in our neighborhood celebrated, inviting everyone over for MLK parties, replete with jambalaya and turnip greens and hush puppies. Only the mother who homeschooled her children forbade her kids from watching the documentary on MLK. Too violent, she protested. Eyeroll. Denying the truth to the masses never leads to a quality education. It is popular methodology, however, for those who like to do all the thinking for others and for those who like to abdicate their thinking to others. Our world is full of the later, which helps explains the popularity of Donald Rump and Kanye Lost.

I’d forgotten how beautiful and charming Jon Voight was in his youth.  I was 17, maybe 18 when I first watched Conrack and even though I was living just an afternoon drive away, I’d never been to Charleston or Beaufort. I didn’t know the beauty of the Lowcountry then, had not yet made my way across the tidal pools at sunset as I would come to do later, and I had not yet read any book by Pat Conroy.

I was 14-years old when school busing became federally-mandated. Prior to that, the public schools I attended stateside were all segregated. (That wasn’t the case during my early education which took place in Hawaii, where I was the minority, the one marginalized.) That was the same year our youth director at church decided to start a reading program for kids in the nearby Projects. A vision that earned him a pink slip and solidified for most of us in Rose Hill’s youth group the importance of being a people who are inclusive and not exclusive.

Watching Conrack as a young college coed reaffirmed the lessons learned alongside my youth group friends. I had known from the get-go that I would teach one day. Afterall, had it not been for the likes of Marjorie Drury and Susan Hussey and Ruby Tucker and so many other fine educators who not only believed in me but demanded I work at learning, I might not have ever made it into college.

It never occurred to me then that I would grow up to become a writer. Never. Not once. That was a vision others instilled in me, first an assistant pastor at First Baptist in Corvallis – Paul Moorefield – and then one of Oregon’s finest writers, George Venn, who taught a graduate class I took at Eastern Oregon University. A new vision is one of the greatest gifts a person can give another. We all have the ability and the opportunity to change the trajectory of another person’s life. Maybe not twenty other people, but the one.

Conrack  is Pat Conroy’s story of his brief stint teaching native children on Daufuskie Island, S.C.. Pat’s teaching style was unconventional and earned him that pink slip.

“You did go swimming naked where everybody could see you. You did cuss in front of your babies. You bought moonshine whiskey and you tacked up a picture of a woman’s bare vagina in your classroom,” admonished Mrs. Scott, the school principal/administrator.

“That was a Picasso, Mrs. Scott!” Conroy protested.

“It was a bare vagina!” she reiterated. (She failed to mention in this exchange that Conroy had drawn a picture of a uterus on the chalkboard, too). “You’ll get on someplace else.”

“I don’t want to be anyplace else,” Conroy said.

And, thus, Conroy was fired. Dismissed for insubordination and unconventional teaching practices. He would never accept another teaching job.

Instead, Conroy went on to become one of America’s greatest novelists.

I had forgotten much of the story of Pat’s teaching experiences, but yesterday when I sat down to write him a personal note upon the announcement that he is now at M.D. Anderson getting treatment for pancreatic cancer, I thought I must tell him about being called into the administration office last week and how the administration demanded to know if I had used the words “penis” and “uterus” in class.

I knew the story would bring a smile to his face. Pat loves a good fight almost as much as he loves a good story.

It was after I read his book, My Losing Season, that I sent flowers to Pat and thanked him for his words about Vietnam, that he first called me. He said Sandra and the housekeeper wept over the card attached to those flowers. The card simply thanked him for saying words I had so longed to hear as a young girl whose life was intricately tied to the American War in Vietnam.

And like dozens and dozens and dozens of writers, my career has been helped along by Pat, because at his very core, Pat is still an unconventional teacher, still imparting a love of words and of story and of learning and of mentoring.

These past four months, I have introduced students to the writing of Zora Neale Hurston, William Gay, Eudora Welty, Michel Stone, Raymond Carver (who is from nearby Yakima), Emily Dickinson, Shakespeare, Ron Rash, Mary Oliver, Silas House, Rebecca Skloot, and so many others.

On a shelf in the back of the room is a stack of copies of The Great Santini.  When I hand them over to students, I don’t tell the students that I know Pat, or that he has shown me great kindnesses over the years. I simply say, “This is an unforgettable story by one of America’s greatest writers. I think you’ll love it.”

Some years ago now, David Sheehan, Karly’s father, sent me rosary beads from Ireland. When I traveled to Normandy, I wore those beads around my neck the entire trip and stopped in nearly every church to light a candle and pray for my friend Patti who had been diagnosed with breast cancer.  When I returned from my trip, I hung the rosary up. (Patti got treatment and is doing great. Thank you, Jesus.)

Yesterday, I pulled those beads out and put them back on. This time I’m praying for Pat and Sandra and the entire Conroy clan.

Join me, will you?

Karen Spears Zacharias is author of Burdy (Mercer University Press). 






Karen Spears Zacharias

Author/Journalist/Educator. Gold Star Daughter.

1 Comment

Virginia Dixon

about 8 years ago

Thank you for sharing this with us. I will join with you in prayer.


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