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Some Lucky Students Spend A Day with Pat Conroy

Last March, ninety-two seniors from Yorktown of Arlington (Virginia) High School arrived at my alma mater, The Citadel, to soak up the trappings and traditions that inspired Pat Conroy's The Lords of Discipline. Not only were they exposed to the uniformed, highly strutured and by-the-book milieu that Pat's novel explores so well, but they were also exposed to Pat himself, who gave an entertaining talk followed by a Q&A that will be long remembered by those lucky enough to attend. Actually, luck had nothing to do with it, as this trip was the handywork of the incomparable Diana Russell, chairman of the English Department. That's Diana in the middle of the photo, flanked by, from left to right, Terry Eiserman, yours truly, Marty Axiotis, and Anya Gan. Diana, Marty and Terry teach English, while Anya teaches math courses and something called Intensified Geometry. I thought geometry was intense enough when I was forced to calculate the third side of an equilateral triangle. Diana, with her husband Jim, began taking these literary spring breaks over a decade ago in Savannah. Her AP English students were assigned Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, referred to in Savannah as "THE book," then taken to that magical Southern city for a firsthand look and feel of John Berendt's setting. Then, two years ago, the locale was switched to Charleston, with The Lords of Discipline the assigned text. Diana thought the students' visit to The Citadel would be enhanced by the presence of the author, as indeed it was. Pat asked the crowd if anyone knew the opening line to the book, and when a chorus of "I wear the ring" came back, he removed his Citadel ring and passed it around to the wide-eyed students. From my vantage point, I watched each student put the ring on, then take a photo of it with their phone, after which I'm sure images of their ringed fingers zoomed off to Arlington, Arizona and Africa. This was the second year I was privileged to attend, and I can only imagine the impact such a program would have had on me as a high school senior. Four days in one of America's greatest cities with sixteen chaparons, luscious restaurants, boat rides, historical tours--all paid for by the students themselves ($550). Every one of these kids is headed to college, and the colleges they attend will be better for the experience Diana and her devoted companions brought to them. If I were a college admissions officer, seeing something like this on a student's record might tip the scale. Diana says next year will be her last, after thirty-four years, but I will believe it when it happens.

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