In the fall of 1975, I started my first teaching job at the Martinsville Junior High School in Martinsville, Virginia. I was a Title VII Remedial Reading Teacher. This was a federally funded program. It was designed to captured struggling ninth grade readers before they entered high school. Yes, grades 7, 8, and 9 were housed at the school.
I had been an English major at Greensboro College. The only college in America that would accept a pitiful student like me. God must have been watching over me.
Did my student teaching at Aycock Junior High School in the Greensboro Public School system with Mr. Wallace Pegram. To this day, I have not forgotten some of Mr. Pegram’s wisdom—“There is a lot of psychology in teaching.” He was correct.
To the south of Martinsville was Greensboro, North Carolina and to the north was Roanoke, Virginia. To the east was Danville and to the west the Blue Ridge Mountains. Martinsville was a furniture and textile town. Dupont, Tultex, Bassett were dominate names. These factories and many more sustained the community.
To me there appeared to be quite an economic divide, but I guess that’s not unusual for a mill or factory town.
Anyway those struggling readers were tough. They just about drove me off as a first year teacher. Somehow with the help of two instructional assistants, I survived running the IBM based reading lab. And those challenging students, in four years helped to form my classroom management skills.
At some point in the fall of 1975, I was introduced to Pat Conroy. The movie Conrack based upon his second book The Water Is Wide showed up on my three channel black and white television set one night. I watched it and I was hooked.
I don’t recall when I bought a copy of The Water Is Wide, but at that moment of introduction I became a fan. But, I will confess, I haven’t read or purchased every book written by Mr. Conroy— The Boo, The Pat Conroy Cookbook: Recipes of My Life, and My Reading Life are still out there for me to conquer.
On March 4, 2016, one of the meanest forms of cancer, pancreatic, took Mr. Conroy’s life. He was 70 years old. When Mr. Conroy announced in February that he was in this battle, an address was posted for sending him a note or letter, words of support and love.
I wrote Mr. Conroy a letter, and sent him a copy of our second self-published book, Murray and the Mudmumblers: The Christmas Benefit At The Haw River Ballroom. I named the road manager for Murray and the Mudmumblers—Conroy. Perhaps, my letter and book made it to Mr. Conroy, but I will never know.
For me, I believe Mr. Conroy’s writing was grounded in this abbreviated quote from him: “The most powerful words in English are ‘Tell me a story’.”
No matter if Mr. Conroy was writing fiction or nonfiction, he was quite the storyteller. He had the ability to draw me in, to hook me, to keep my attention, and in the closing lines, I didn’t want the book to end, I wanted more.
While I’m certain, some skilled critics of literature would disagree with my assessment, Mr. Conroy’s work resonated with me. His stories stuck to my ribs. He made me laugh, and my heart had tears well up in it.
I don’t believe he was successful, but Mr. Conroy attempted to expand my vocabulary with words like dyspeptic, censorious, salient, anathema, and choler.
Quite often food was woven into the pages of his work. No matter the path chosen by a character food could be a part of the journey. My mouth watered at some of those descriptions. Once, I even ordered shrimp and gravy at a small roadside restaurant at Ocean Isle Beach in North Carolina because of Mr. Conroy.
After I retired from 31 years of work in public schools, my friend, John McGinty, offered me a part-time job teaching freshman English at Benedictine High School in the city of Richmond. Benedictine was a Catholic, military grounded school for boys. The school was also known for its prowess on the basketball court. Mr. Conroy would have fit in as student athlete at Benedictine.
When My Losing Season was published I read with interest the references to Benedictine. Mr. Conroy wrote with great enthusiasm when his high school team unexpectedly took down the mighty Benedictine Cadets in a tournament. I always shared that section of the book with my classes.
Whether he was writing from fact or fiction, Mr. Conroy bared his soul when he wrote about his family. Families are as fertile as low country soil for stories. Those people, their stories molded Mr. Conroy. Most importantly, they shaped his writing.
His relationship with his college, The Citadel, was an off and on love affair. That tussle was grounded in his book The Lords Of Discipline. But, time has a way of healing wounds, even deep wounds.
I loved that Mr. Conroy had a very brief career as a teacher. But, he never lost his appreciation for teachers across America. When he would meet teachers, he would always say, “God’s work, but not God’s pay.”
If you were to ask me my favorite Pat Conroy book, I would probably lean toward The Water Is Wide. That book started my peregrination with him. (I wonder if he would approve of my vocabulary expander in the previous sentence?)
But, in truth, I also have an affection for A Low Country Heart Reflections on a Writing Life. This is a collection of nonfiction writing from Mr. Conroy and those who knew him from an assortment of angles.
If you want all of your emotions touched, read Mr. Conroy’s graduation speech to the Corps of Cadets at The Citadel in 2001. Again, I’m no expert, but I think the core of Pat Conroy is in that speech. Heck, you can even watch this address on You Tube.
Perhaps, somewhere, at this very moment, someone is working on a biography about Mr. Conroy’s life.
This author will pour his/her heart and soul into hours and hours of research, interviewing, writing, rewriting, late nights, early mornings, deadlines, editing, reading the manuscript over and over again, listening to an editor’s suggestions, and finally a book will be published.
I’m sure I would rush out and buy a copy.
But then, why should I?
Part of me thinks Mr. Conroy has already given us his biography.
Mr. Conroy’s life is in his books.
He told us his story.
And for that sharing, I am forever grateful.
I miss you Pat Conroy.