To Sir, With Love by E.R. Braithwaite
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I must have been around eleven or twelve years old when I watched To Sir With Love (1967). It was a movie that moved me a great deal, not to mention Sidney Poitier’s excellent acting! I never got to see it again after that first time, and was quite excited to come across only last week at a local book store. There was just one copy of the book with a very dignified Poitier gazing out from its cover.
I grabbed it.
It is a story about the experience Braithwaite had as a teacher – an authobiography that documents one stage on his life. Very well educated, Braithwaite works as an engineer until the Second World War calls him to a sense of his patriotic duty. He joins the R.A.F. and leads the life of a hero…until the war is over. Back in civilian clothes and confident about getting a good job with his excellent qualifications, Braithwaite suffers a terrible disillussionment when he finds that the colour of his skin brings out the prejudice in his fellow white Britons. For me personally, it is easy to relate to what he says in the following passage:
The majority of Britons at home have very little appreciation of what that intangible yet amazingly real and invaluable export – The British Way of Life – means to colonial people; and they seem to give little thought to the fantastic phenomenon of races so very different from themselves in pigmentation, and widely scattered geographically, assiduously indentifying themselves with British loyalties, beliefs and traditions. This attitude can easily be observed in the way in which the coloured Colonial will quote the British systems of Law, Education and Government, and will adopt fashions in dress and social codes, even though his knowledge of these things has depended largely on secondhand information. All this is especially true of the West Indian Colonials, who are predominantly the descendants of slaves who were forever removed from the cultural influenc of their forefathers, and who lived, worked, and reared their children through the rigours of slavery and the growing pains of gradual enfrachisement, according to the only example they knew – the British Way.
The ties which bind them to Britain are strong, and this is very apparent on each occasion of a Royal visit, when all of them, young and old, rich and poor, join happily together in unrestrained and joyful demonstrations of welcome. Yes, it is wonderful to be British – until one comes to Britain. By dint of careful saving or through hard-won scholarships many of them arrive in Britain to be educate in the Arts and Sciences and in the varied processes of legislative and administrative government. They come, bolstered by a firm, conditioned belief that Britain and the British stand for all that is best in both Christian and Democratic terms; in their naivete they ascribe these high principles to all Britons, without exception.
I had grown up British in every way. Myself, my parents and my parents’ parents, none of us knew or could know any other way of living, of thinking, of being; we knew no other cultural pattern, and I had never heard any of my forebears complain about being British. As a boy I was taught to appreciate English literature, poetry and prose, classical and contemporary, and it was absolutely natural for me to identify myself with the British heroes of the adventure stories against the villains of the piece who were invariably non-British, and so to my boy-ish mind, more easily capable of villainous conduct. The more selective reading of my college and university life was marked by the same predilectio as for English literature, and I did not hesitate to defend my preferences to my American colleagues.
For two years Braithwaite struggles to find a job midst the prejudice that festers in the civilian world. At long last he gets a position as a teacher in a rather poor neighbourhood. It wasn’t something he had been looking to do, and to top it of, his students would be white save for one child.
My own experiences during the past two years invaded my thoughts, reminding me that these children were white; hungry or filled, naked or clothed, they were white, and as far as I was concerned, that fact alone made the difference between the haves and the have-nots. I wanted this job badly and I was quite prepared to do it to the best of my ability, but it would be a job, not a labour of love.
But as teacher and students struggle to maintain a balance this story becomes a narrative not on black and white, but on a relationship slowly yet surely forged between a misfit bunch of children and their teacher, friend and guide. In fact, at one point as he is calling out attendance he mentions how it wasn’t really necessary as he already knew who was absent:
I could quickly spot an absence, so much a part of me the class had become.
Of course, the struggle of the blacks does not take a back seat. We find how quick people are to assume the worst of a black man; how he is treated like filth even in a fancy restaurant where he is obviously more cultured and educated than the waiter; and even where doubts creep in with the reaction of others to his romantic relationship with Miss Blanchard, his white fellow-teacher. It is a struggle against a prejudice cloaked in British poise and etiquette. Braithwaite says it was easier for the black man in America to fight for his rights since the prejudice was so open and obvious. But in Britain it was hard to fight for rights, that on the surface, looked absolutely clear and proper. The story ends with the passing out of his very first class, but his story continues in other books on various stages of his life.
The novel is written in the first person, and is very crisp and to the point. Each chapter is episodic in style, and though a short novel, it covers quite a bit of ground. I cannot say that the book moved me. In fact, I think the movie did that to me. Nevertheless, it keeps you interested and wondering – especially with regard to the relationship between Braithwaite and his students. This is a novel that teachers would relate to quite easily. I would say that this is a must read only for the themes that recur throughout the novel. However, it’s yet another easy read.