Pat Conroy labeled his student hand-out: “Stringent, uncompromising rules to be followed by the bleating herd.”
The herd was his fourth- and fifth-period psychology classes at Beaufort High School. The rules were for their field trip to Columbia in the fall of 1968.
Many years later, the class would present a blown-up copy of the rules to the unconventional teacher who wowed them before he transferred to the Daufuskie Island school, was fired a year later, and became a world-famous author and Beaufort icon before passing away a year ago.
Never miss a local story.
“There will be no rebellion against authority engendered by any real or imaginary generation gap,” Conroy wrote. “Let there be no drinking, debauching, sinning and/or calling beloved psychology teacher names to be found on bathroom walls.”
“Young maidens will garb themselves in modesty,” Conroy wrote. “... Prison riots induced by girls wolf whistling at prisoners will adversely affect your grade. ...
“Young gentlemen, and I use the word gentlemen in the loosest connotation, will use a spoon when they eat their soup at lunch ...
“The chaperones are like sea captains. They can pass the death sentence, conduct matrimonial ceremonies, issue harsh punishments, decree holidays, or grant pardons.
“If you irritate or exacerbate your most esteemed psychology teacher while on trip, here is how to calculate grade for the semester. Take the number 1,000. Then add 4,000. Divide the total by 5,000. Then subtract 1.”
Conroy was barely older than his students, and he shared something else with many of them: He was the child of a Marine.
He taught two years at his alma mater, right out of The Citadel. They are almost the forgotten years in his storied life, but they were the subject of the novel he was working on when he died, “The Storms of Aquarius.”
It may never be published.
But his Beaufort High students now know they got vintage Conroy — edgy, funny, endearing, demanding — before the rest of the world had even cracked the book.
‘Walk to the window’
Vietnam wasn’t the only harsh news of the day.
Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. Forced integration of the Beaufort schools was just around the corner.
“And here comes this guy talking our language — as an authority figure — and he does it with a sense of humor,” recalls Terrianne Smunk Hudson, now a retired nurse living in Athens, Georgia. “He was hilarious.”
She said Conroy made fun of himself on her first day in his classroom. He deadpanned verbatim his lesson plan from his first day as a teacher a year earlier. It included: “In parenthesis, ‘Walk to the window and look out.’”
Conroy taught at Beaufort High in the 1968-69 and 1969-70 school years. He coached baseball and junior varsity basketball — and taught sex education in a psychology class, sponsored the student Afro-American Culture Society before voluntary school integration ended, and managed to teach a class in African-American studies.
One of his students, novelist and Notre Dame professor Valerie Sayers, sits on the board of the new Pat Conroy Literary Center in Beaufort.
Connie Foutz Hipp of Beaufort, known for running the Leadership Beaufort program with Rob Bridgers, liked Conroy’s psychology class so much she signed up for the African-American studies class the next semester. She was told she needed her parents’ permission.
Her father was a Marine Corps officer who had seen the world and had an open mind, she said, but times were dicey and he advised his daughter against taking the class. “What if we don’t put it on your report card?” someone in the guidance office asked. Her father went to his grave in the Beaufort National Cemetery four years ago without knowing she took that class.
“It introduced me to a whole different culture,” Hipp says today. “I saw Pat years later and he said, ‘You know, you made history in the South.’ He said they told him he could not teach the class unless whites were in it, too.”
Her voice quivers when she says, “He told me he was proud of me for doing that.”
The class trip to a large mental health complex and the Central Correctional Institute — both now relegated to the history books — apparently came off without anyone earning a zero.
In fact, when his old Beaufort High students read “The Water is Wide,” Conroy’s 1972 book about his year of pushing new experiences on Daufuskie students, they felt like they’d already lived it.
“I guess we were his first audience; he shared so much,” Hudson said.
Celeste Prince Brown, who has kept those class trip rules all these years and grew up to be a career educator in Beaufort, recalls an energetic young Conroy trying to broaden the experiences of his students.
She remembers the state pen as “a bare, cold, dimly lit place.”
Hudson remembers walking single file through the mental institution, silently meeting vacant stares from patients in rocking chairs. One of them joined the single-file line, until an orderly came to get her.
“It was kind of scary,” Hipp said. “He really tried to take you beyond the textbook. It wasn’t just to shock us. I think he wanted us looking at people and thinking about people in a different way. These people were there because of a problem, and he wanted us to see that side, too, and to understand it.”
Conroy’s students said they couldn’t help but notice how tense he was the day his parents came to class to observe him. Future Conroy novels would help explain it.
Their book on Conroy is that he was a transformative figure in their lives — a force of nature.
“His death last year was kind of a wake-up call,” Hudson said. “It came on March 4, and it’s like they are saying, ‘March Forth.’ His message is still, ‘Don’t waste your time.’”