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It's strange, the subtle anxiety caused by the simple flip of a calendar page. Though days continue unabated and weeks progress at a good clip, there's something about seeing Jan. 1 on the horizon. Maybe it's the starting over that worries us. Maybe it's the starting over that empowers us. Regardless of viewpoint, New Year's Day is the headwater of the future. It's the launch of the unknown.

Truly, the unknown is the best part about a new year. Understanding the hidden obstacles and gems to be unearthed invigorates and sparks actual living. While most of us grasp that simple concept, a lot of folks really get this, especially the teachers among us.

Teachers, by nature, understand there's always more to a year, a situation, or a person than can be found in stark statistics or data points. A day on a calendar page? No, a moment in time to seek the hidden.

Pat Conroy's The Water is Wide is a memoir of his short teaching career on Daufuskie Island, S.C., and remains one of my favorite books. His descriptions make it easy to hear the johnboat motor grumbling through channel waters, churning up moss and dirt as it nears the island bank. The exhaust fumes cause a momentary dizzy spell as the little boat waggles back and forth under the weight of the disembarking passenger. Stepping onto the muddy shore, a young man with a receding hairline balanced by long sideburns assesses his new job. He's a teacher.

Conroy took a deep breath of salt-tinged marsh air. Like most new teachers, he momentarily stood on the steps of his new schoolhouse and wondered what the hell he had gotten himself into. Teaching is a big deal. It's confrontational and risky and joint-aching work; and that's only if it's done right. It takes courage to enter a classroom for the first time, to take a place on the other side of the lectern commanding both voice and chalk. But the real courage comes from suspending preconceived notions about those with whom you're about to interact. It takes courage to see there's a deep river running under the shallows of personality.

The book's lyrical prose allows one to see Pat Conroy advancing the steps of the schoolhouse to meet his students, who were victims of South Carolina's Jim Crow laws. His students sat in a poor schoolhouse where lack of money, resources, and expectations created a morass of ignorance. These children were fully neglected in mind and spirit. The local school board thought them incapable of learning. Conroy knew different. He set about lifting the dead weight of low expectations.

Many veteran teachers read The Water is Wide and remember having had some naiveté during that first year, some belief they possessed the wheel that would turn the lumbering barge of education into clear waters. It doesn't happen that way. But Conroy understood something in that first year of teaching that takes most educators longer to realize: He understood the need to start digging.

Conroy wrote at length about those students--all poor, all distanced from the American Dream--and the academic atrophy they experienced. But then he described that, once ignited by the fire of knowledge, they suddenly turned from a stereotype to real students. They longed for engagement. They pined for that great high that comes from an exercised mind.

Conroy removed the heavy layers of discriminatory social fabric and taught. More importantly, his students learned. But the true story lies in the fact that Conroy knew there was more to them, that he did not accept their state in life as permanent. However, it's important to recognize that he did not give his students their passions, hopes, and talents. He uncovered them.

Good teachers create. Great teachers reveal. Good teachers unleash a barrage of ideas and concepts. Great teachers reach into the souls of their students and dig into their richest, finest corners and disentangle the greatest aspect of each individual life: purpose. Because when a man or woman finds purpose, the world starts anew.

Later, in My Losing Season, Conroy wrote that Hemingway didn't know he was Ernest Hemingway when he was a young man. Faulkner didn't know he was William Faulkner. Instead, they were kids who had to be challenged, encouraged, and uncovered before they could become the great authors we know now.

Hemingway and Faulkner are great examples, but what can we uncover in our own conversations when we look past ZIP codes or initial images, preconceived notions and stereotypical place setting? Can we also uncover a storyteller, a poet, an inspiring narrator? Can we uncover a scientist, a patent waiting to happen, a life story greater than fiction?

Uncovering. That wonderful secret that the great teachers possess. That simple act with profound impact that we can all join. It's exactly what we feel when the new year begins. Yes, we resolve to exercise more, to eat healthier, to improve. But what really tantalizes us is the unknown. It's the hidden aspects of the new year that make us say farewell to the past and welcome a new day's arrival with a simple kiss.

In a few short days, the calendar page will turn with the sound of fireworks and parties as the background music. Then we will awaken and embark upon the new year. What will it hold? Maybe, with resolve to look deeper into our casual interactions and deeper into acquaintances, co-workers, and friends, we just might uncover something akin to what Pat Conroy found. We just might uncover the treasure of purpose.


Steve Straessle, whose column appears every other Saturday, is the principal of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys. You can reach him at

Editorial on 12/28/2019


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