My exaggerated life, p.6
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       My Exaggerated Life, p.6
 

           Pat Conroy

  I think that’s why I want to write, to make others feel that way. When literature is magical, it is life changing, and that’s why the writer does it. And in my case, writing has been a lifesaving act. I don’t understand when people ask, “Is your writing therapeutic?” I should hope so. Writing has provided that craft where I find myself. I had things I had to get out somehow. I do not know if I was blessed or cursed with being the rememberer. But we writers forget nothing. Every one of those guys who went to the Citadel took it and left it behind. I left nothing behind. I remembered every instant, every guy who yelled at me, every guy who humiliated me. Just like I remember the utter horror which I grew up with. If I did not let these things out, something was going to kill me. Also, I wanted to be a writer, and a writer who matters, because I wanted to prove that my life was not worthless, that it was leading toward something.

  ONE

  Beaufort, South Carolina

  1967–1973

  Here’s this guy who loved being a hero and saving people’s lives. He’s supposed to be the hero in the situation, but he didn’t save anybody.… It fed into his guilt that he wasn’t good enough.… And he didn’t understand his confusion about his identity. He was always conflicted between being the good guy—the hero—and the bad guy.

  MARION O’NEILL, Ph.D., ABPP, clinical psychologist

  Anyone who knows me well must understand and be sympathetic to my genuine need to be my own greatest hero. It is not a flaw of character. It is a catastrophe.

  PAT CONROY, The Lords of Discipline

  My first two years of teaching at Beaufort High School were immensely happy to me, although I was incompetent to teach the courses I was teaching—psychology and American government—oh, yes, I knew a lot about both subjects. So that first day was terrifying. I felt ill prepared to teach, ill prepared to face those thirty students that first morning. It scared me to death; I was so afraid of public speaking. I’d once taken a public-speaking course at the Citadel to get over my abject fear of this, but I had not quite done it yet.

  So I had written out every word I was going to say during this first class. I even had instructions for myself like “Walk to the window. Tug at belt. Let them know you’re not nervous or intimidated. Walk back slowly to the podium.” I followed my directions. It was a psychology class, so I played some song that had psychological meaning and was going to apply that to all of life. You know, “Psychology is everywhere. It’s all around us. You’re living it right now. You’re living it as I talk to you.” So I’m doing all this horseshit. Then I read them “Richard Corey” by Edward Arlington Robinson, with that powerful ending. I look up, I’m completely finished with the five pages of instructions to myself, and I have forty-five minutes left. Sheer panic ran through me, sheer and utter panic.

  Then I realized that bullshit can flow freely out of my mouth at any time. And these kids seemed to love everything that came out of my mouth; I could do no wrong with these kids. I never knew I had a good personality until I was in those classrooms and could barely say a word without those kids laughing their asses off. I didn’t know I was funny, and those kids laughed at everything I said. These kids had no particular reason to like me, but they could not get enough of me, and they let me know that. I found out from the girls I taught in class that I was attractive, which I had never considered. The girls seemed crazy for me; the boys seemed to want to emulate me and follow me around. I did not know that people would like me like this, because at the Citadel I was a misfit. When I realized my students simply adored me, I found out I adored teaching. It was a great moment for me, a great two years of my life. And I found myself very happy teaching.

  In psychology I ended up teaching these kids sex education, because I had six girls get pregnant the first semester, and they kicked them all out of school. These were some of the smartest girls I had. I was roaring down at the principal’s office, Mr. Biddle. “Why did you kick them out? These are six of the smartest girls in class. I’d be happy to teach them.”

  “Well, we have a policy in the county, that if a girl gets pregnant she has to drop out immediately.”

  I said, “Did you ever think about changing the policy? It’s a dumb policy.”

  He completely failed there, and then I surprised Mr. Biddle by saying, “What about the boys? Kick them out.”

  “Well, you know, we have the problem that we don’t know who the boys are.”

  I said, “I’ll be happy to tell you. I know all six of them, and I’ll give you their names right now. You can kick them right out.”

  “Well, you know, that’s not the way the policy works.”

  There was nothing bad about Lloyd Biddle, and I think he said something to the home ec teacher, who came up to me, said, “Pat, I’ve been wanting to teach girls about birth control in my home ec class, but they all told me I’d be fired.”

  “How can I help you?”

  “You’re so young and new here, why don’t you teach sex education in your psychology course? No one would think you’d be doing it. I can’t get away with it in home ec.”

  I said, “I don’t know how to tell you this, but I’m a virgin.”

  She said, “That’s no problem. I have a book.”

  She gives me the book; I tell the kids what I’m going to do, why I’m doing it. I said, “None of you girls are getting pregnant while you’re in this class. If they do, boys, I’ll make sure you get kicked out.” And I told them, “If any of you tell your parents, they will kick me out. So if you’re not interested, you can get out of the course. I’ll write you a pass to home room.”

  All of them stayed. All of them ended up loving the course. I was never betrayed by them. When I first of all tell them I’m a virgin and don’t know what I’m talking about, this caused high hilarity. I said, “You are not being taught this by a stud horse.” But, I told them, we will learn together.

  In my own family, I must have been in ninth grade when Mom said, “Son, isn’t it beautiful the way the sperm meets the egg?” I had no idea what she was talking about. Then Dad one day at a gas station said, “If you ever get a girl pregnant I’ll fucking kill you. Got it?” I said, “Yes, sir.” That was sex education in the Conroy household in a nutshell.

  And these kids knew nothing; they didn’t know a thing. (We didn’t have cable then.) I taught them every kind of birth control they could use, and how to use it. I avoided things like drawing a penis up on the board because I can’t draw. But I did not lose a girl in the next two years. It would not surprise me if that class was the most remembered thing about me at Beaufort High School.

  Later I found out that Mr. Biddle knew about it and was secretly in favor of me teaching it. As I look back on my career, that was a warning sign: that I was a pain in the ass and could certainly get myself in trouble.

  I turned out to be a very bad coach. I love coaching and I love coaches, and it was easy for me to imagine myself as a coach for the rest of my life. But I found that I hated cutting kids. When I cut my first bunch from the JV basketball team, I went outside to my car and heard a lot of these kids crying. I couldn’t take it. I went home, called them up, and asked them all to come back. I found out I liked playing a sport better than I liked coaching a sport, and then I realized what I really wanted to do was to be home reading and writing.

  Then I got into the racial politics of coaching at Beaufort High School. I was supposed to be the head basketball coach the following year, and Frank Small, the athletic director, was a racist of the old order. He told me I favored the Negro student too much.

  This was the first year of “freedom of choice,” and we got a hundred black kids at the white school that year. The black community hand-selected these kids; they were smart as hell. I got to know them very well and would try to go visit the parents when I could. These black parents were stunned when I made a point of showing up at their houses. It was then I realized that I was part of the changing of the South—a small part, but a part. And I wanted to be a w
hite part of that change. It was not significant, but it was something, and something I began trying to do.

  I told Frank Small, “We’re going to have a much better basketball team.” Coach Small called me in and said if I was going to be unfair to white people and look out for the nigger all the time, I couldn’t coach for him. I said, “Coach, watch my back as I leave through the door, because you’ll never see it again.”

  I walked out, and that was it. I taught, and in the afternoons I’d read and write, and I got a lot done that year.

  During this time I had these three friends, fellow teachers. Mike Jones, George Garbade, Bernie Schein, and I became a foursome that year. Mike Jones and George Garbade taught with me at the high school. Bernie was the principal in Yemasee, which is the smallest little town you’ve ever seen, about twenty miles from Beaufort. He’d drive in from Yemasee almost every night, so we saw him every day. The next year he took a job in town at Port Royal Elementary School. He knew nothing at all about being a principal; he was twenty-one years old. But this was South Carolina.

  Nobody can believe Bernie has been my best friend since high school, and has probably been the most important friend I’ve had in my life. As a military brat, I’d come into these towns and wouldn’t know anybody. When I went to a school, I was always new, so I had to figure out who needed friends instantly: effeminate boys, unpopular girls, Jews. I could make friends with the sissy boys because I’d see them getting pushed around and beat up, and I hated bullies. These boys needed protectors, and I was a tough kid so I could do that. The unpopular girls, they needed somebody to talk to. In the South there was usually a Jewish kid who needed a friend. By then I could recognize the outsiders, the kids who needed friends.

  So I was this boy of solitude walking into Beaufort High School not knowing a human being in that school, when I hear this hyena laugh. The laugh made me laugh, so I thought I’d try to become friends with that guy. The school was in a horseshoe shape, and the laugh was in the cafeteria, which was far away. This laugh is so loud, so obnoxious and absolutely individual. I don’t go to movies with Bernie anymore because this laugh is so overpowering that the audience ends up waiting for his laugh so they can laugh at the laugh. Anyway, I went looking for the kid with the laugh, and when I found him, he’s Bernie.

  Bernie is the first guy I met who loved ideas, who loved politics, who loved books, who loved talking, who read the newspaper. He was exactly like me in that; he had a million ideas, and he wanted to talk about them. But he was a year ahead of me, so the real friendship began when I first started teaching at Beaufort High School out of the Citadel. From the very beginning when we were teaching, we were both interested in education, we were both interested in writing. We now look back and see we were both alive. We were alive and excited. This was ’67, ’68, ’69. I look upon that as being very good for me, or very bad if you’re looking at another angle.

  What these guys all did for me is they liberated me from myself. I was coming from this spiritual chain gang of Catholicism, then I was at the Citadel, then I’d been raised by a Marine. It is a stern church, and I had a stern father, and I went to a stern school. There is an uptightness in me which still is there. Even now, there’s something basically conservative about me. I’ve been an old man since I was about ten. I know this deeply inside me, even though I’ve been what passes for a communist in South Carolina for a good twenty years.

  Here is how uptight and Catholic I still was at that time: I was in a prayer group with Gene Norris and three old ladies. We met once a week and prayed for world peace, prayed that Mr. Thornton would quit drinking, that kind of shit. It was the most boring thing I’ve ever done, but Gene thought it was wonderful that I was such a spiritual young man.

  Anyway, Mike and George started giving parties on the weekend at their apartment. I’d never show up because I was going to that prayer group. They came over the day after a party and said, “Hey, Pat, why didn’t you come?” I said I didn’t have a date. Bernie said, “Pat, has it ever occurred to you that you might meet a girl at a party?” I said, “There were girls there without dates?” He said, “Yeah, there always are.” Then they said, “We’re gonna have another party next week,” and I didn’t show up for that one.

  What it was: in the Catholic culture you do not go toward near occasions of sin. To go to a party to hunt for girls, that’s a near occasion of sin. So I was just uptight. I didn’t drink, so I was uncomfortable with parties, and I had no experience with women, so I was uncomfortable with them. In this world of sex I just never did very well. The Catholic thing held me back; my mother held me back. The Catholic Church did a real number on me. I missed quite a bit of the American sexual experience.

  When I was in high school, there was a girl I liked, Terry Leite, who came out to the graduation hop my freshman year at the Citadel. I was smitten with her, and she seemed smitten with me. Mom sends me her usual five bucks for the date. Here is what saved me: I win the journalism award from the Brigadier for the best article, and I’m given $50, the most money I’ve ever seen in my life. So I take her to dinner. I don’t have to order water and a bean sprout. I’m so relieved.

  We went to the hop. It was great. She stayed in the Charleston Inn, which I could walk to from the Citadel. We walked everywhere. We walked South of Broad. It was just beautiful, wonderful. We enjoyed each other. We liked kissing each other, and holding hands with each other. So anyway, I walk her back to the Charleston Inn after the hop. I said, “I’ll see you tomorrow morning for breakfast.”

  I walk back to the Citadel and go to open the barracks gate. It is locked. There’s not a light on anywhere. I walk down to the gym trying to figure out how to get in. The gym’s locked, no lights, so I can’t get in the gym. I think I tried the visiting team room, couldn’t get in there. The whole campus was locked down. I try to figure out what to say to Terry because she’s this little virginal Catholic girl.

  I go back to the Charleston Inn. I knock on her door. She’s got curlers in her hair.

  She says, “Pat, what are you doing here? You’re not here for what I think you are?”

  I said, “No, no.” I explained what had happened.

  She was in her PJs, so she goes and puts Bermuda shorts on and this jacket she zipped up tight to her neck. Then she put her socks and tennis shoes on. She slept in her tennis shoes. So there was no point of entry, no point of sight that could arouse anything at all. A perfect Catholic girl.

  I am horrified. She thinks I’m a rapist. She thinks I arranged this: “Aha, now I have you where I want you. I’ve fooled you, stupid little thing. Come into my trap.” Well, I’m dying. I’m utterly dying. I slept either on the floor or the couch, I cannot remember which one.

  I took her to a nice breakfast; I think we went to the Francis Marion Hotel. It’s Sunday; we went to the cathedral, and we again walked around the city, making plans to live there someday. We pass by the house that she and her second husband would live in one day.

  Then she had to go back to Atlanta. She said, “Where are you going for the summer, Pat?”

  I said, “I don’t know. I hadn’t thought of it yet. My parents are in Omaha, Nebraska, but they haven’t sent me a way home.”

  She said, “Why don’t you come home with me?”

  I said, “Would your parents mind?”

  “Oh, they’d love it.”

  So one of the great sexual nights of my life was that train ride through the night to Atlanta. We were Catholic: our hands did not wander. She’s a good Catholic girl, I’m a good Catholic boy, and it’s a murderous combination. So we just kissed. But it seemed like heaven to me.

  We get to the next day. Her boyfriend in Atlanta is waiting to take us home. It was the most uncomfortable ride I think I’ve ever had in my life. She forgot to tell me about the boyfriend. Terry called me a couple years ago to tell me he had died. I said, “Finally, my guilt is resolved.” So he takes us to her home in Atlanta, at 1988 Timothy Street, and I stayed there abo
ut two or three days until Mom and Dad finally sent me a ticket by train to Omaha.

  I wrote her all summer, every day from Omaha. They are the most hilarious, obnoxious, boy-in-love, boy-trying-to-be-a-writer letters you’ve ever seen in your life. Overwritten does not even begin to describe it. They were awful, awful, awful, but I now look at them as a treasure trove of a young man trying to become a writer and impress a girl with his writing ability, of which I had none. All I had was sperm-filled emotions and fantasies of making it out of this uptight Catholic-riddled body. I did not have proof that she was even alive during that time because she never wrote back once. But she saved all the letters, because she thought I was going to be a writer, and she still has them.

  Every time I came through the Atlanta airport on the Christmas road trip for the basketball team, I’d call Terry. That was basically the entire sexual history of my life at the Citadel, those Christmas phone calls. I never dated anyone seriously.

  My one serious relationship in college was Mary Alice, who I went out with one time in high school. I’ve dated every girl in the world once. She was wonderful, but Dad controlled that one. I didn’t have a driver’s license, so I had to double date; if I couldn’t double date I couldn’t date. And of course, I had no money. It costs money to go to the movies. “Why don’t you go on base? It’s only a dime.” “Mom, I can’t go on base. I’m doubling with the guys. They’re going downtown.” “Well, I think it’s a waste of money.” So Mary Alice, I just dated her one time.

 
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