The Daily Gamecock

Author’s inspiration speaks at USC

Ferillo receives Travelstead Award Monday night

Before he was a bestselling author, Pat Conroy was a life-changing teacher for a group of students at the Mary Fields School on Daufuskie Island off the Savannah, Ga., coast in 1969 and 1970.

One of his students, on whom he based the character Ethel in his 1972 memoir “The Water Is Wide,” described the influence of Conroy as an educator and mentor to these sheltered children with a curiosity about the world outside their island. Sallie Ann Robinson delivered the message as the Witten Distinguished Lecturer Monday afternoon in the School of Law auditorium. Robinson, now a noted Gullah chef and cookbook author, recalled the day Conroy took over her seventh-grade classroom.

“We had no idea that males taught school,” Robinson said. “We had no idea this man was gonna change our lives. He looked at the books we had — they were old, they were ratty ... He wanted us to know what those pages we read were saying in our world.”

Robinson described a teacher who took on the responsibility of preparing these children for the world beyond their island that, until that point, they had known nothing about.

Lessons on the Great Lakes, classical music, space and the “magic” of science, trick-or-treating and a class trip to Washington, D.C. were among Robinson’s recollections of Conroy.

“The Water is Wide,” one of Conroy’s most well-known works, is his real life account of his life as a teacher working in a run-down school on a poorly funded island. Like in real life, Conroy’s students are almost all descendants of slaves who have had very little contact with the outside world because there were no bridges leading off the island. In order to connect with his students, Conroy had to use unconventional teaching methods.

“Each day he greeted us with something different, something new, something exciting,” Robinson said. “We didn’t know learning could be fun. I did not know that the world beyond us had things that we couldn’t imagine ... He really wanted us to know that: ‘Y’all are in school, and you need to learn your stuff because when you do leave, they gonna eat you alive.’ He was gentle, but he was also letting us know that we had to prepare ourselves.”

Robinson’s lecture was preceded by the presentation of the Chester C. Travelstead Award for Courage in Education to Charles T. Ferillo Jr., the communications specialist for the Children’s Law Center and maker of the award-winning documentary “Corridor of Shame: The Neglect of South Carolina’s Rural Schools.” In his acceptance, Ferillo spoke of hope for the future of education in South Carolina.

“My work ... has been to shape a vastly different future for all the children, and for all the people,” Ferillo said. “It is long past time for South Carolina to let go of its crippling past, which the world knows all to well, and embrace a more enlightened and hopeful future.”