Wednesday, February 16, 2011

"Conrack" Taught Here

If you're a baby-boomer of a certain age, maybe you remember the movie "Conrack." It stars Jon Voigt--impossibly young and shaggy-haired--as a good 'ol Southern boy who grows a conscience after college and takes a job teaching impoverished black children on tiny, coastal Yamacraw Island. Conrack breaks a lot of rules in his earnest struggle to make a difference for kids that "the system" has failed in a big way.

The two-room school where Conroy taught is now
a church community center.  Lots more pictures HERE
The movie was based on a memoir by Pat Conroy, titled The Water is Wide.  Conroy, the author of such famous works as The Prince of Tides, The Lords of Discipline, and The Great Santini, got his start as a  passionate and unconventional first-year teacher who Questioned Authority and lived to write about it.

In the mid 1970s, when the book (and movie) came out, the Cap'n was a young, passionate, unconventional teacher-to-be. He remembers reading the book to be a revolutionary experience.

Turns out, "Yamacraw" is a pseudonym for real-life Dafuskie Island . . . and we docked there Monday.  (Photos HERE!) Dafuskie (Gullah for Da fus' key,  "The First Key,") is a bit north of Savannah--just past Hilton Head.

The Gullah people are freed blacks who, after "The War of Northern Oppression," were re-settled on the sea islands of Georgia and South Carolina, where plantations were divided up into small farms.
These island residents, descended from people enslaved from Sierra Leone, have, in their isolation, preserved more of their original culture than any other African-American group--including their distinctive dialect. His first day in the classroom, Conroy says, he could barely understand his students.
Conroy and his students
played a lot of basketball. 

Conroy arrived on Dafuskie shortly after America sent men to the moon. But many modern innovations hadn't reached the island. It had dirt roads, no phones, no fire department, no hospital or clinic. There was one car; islanders got around mostly by oxcart. They made their living catching shrimp, fish, and oysters in small boats.

Today many of the roads are still surfaced with pale sand. Traveling down them, you can still see some of the tiny vernacular cottages, with their deep porches and sheet metal roofs, tucked under massive live oaks, with goats and dogs roaming the yards.

As I biked one muddy track, under a canopy of live oaks and palms, I spotted a tree covered with bright red flowers: a red maple, ready for spring. Flocks of warblers peeped quietly in the undergrowth, systematically refueling on their northbound migration.

Meanwhile the boat landing had rows of contractor's pickups and vans, and island traffic--a mix of golf carts and high-end SUVs-- whisked down the lone paved road that runs the length of the island.  Developers bought land here in the 70s and 80s.  Two tracts of land, formerly cotton plantations, are now gated communities sprouting expensive houses.  The northern tip of the island has a row of brand new mansions, each as elaborate as the Jekyll Island Club for millionaires--next to a shaggy, dry brown golf course, bankrupt and abandoned.

An old home made new.  
On the other hand, the Island has a historical foundation. A bustling little modern public school.  A state-of-the-art fire station. There's a Dafuskie Island Conservancy.  And a community farm. Trees along the roads were decorated with pink construction paper Valentine hearts, advertising a spaghetti dinner to benefit the school.

The challenges for Dafuskie Island:  How to give residents stable jobs that pay a living wage, how to make sure the community has basic services . . .  without destroying the island's cultural heritage and natural beauty. Without destroying the special things that give it sense of place, and the valuable ecosystems that support native species.

I guess that's the challenge our nation faces pretty much everywhere.

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