To Sir, With Love is an autobiographical novel by E. R. Braithwaite. Braithwaite was born in Guyana, well-educated, and a pilot in the Royal Air Force during WWII. He says in the book that his color was not a factor during his military service, not even in dating, and he had almost forgotten that his color could be a factor. But after his military service, he spent almost eighteen months unsuccessfully looking for a job. He’d have promising leads until he went for an in-person interview. He began to grow bitter. A chance meeting with a stranger on a park bench put the possibility of teaching in his mind.
He found an opening at a school in the East End of London called Greenslade in the book. The headmaster said they didn’t practice punishment at the school. The students came from disadvantaged backgrounds and needed encouragement and building up. But Braithwaite wasn’t given any advice or tools to help him manage his students. When he asked fellow teachers, advice ranged from “Show them who’s boss” to “Don’t be too hard on them.”
Braithwaite found his students, for the most part, not very literate, crude, vulgar, unwashed, and uncaring about gaining knowledge or much of anything. Their reactions to him varied from ignoring him to disdain to hostility.
Finally, he hit on an approach that seemed to work. I won’t spoil the story by saying what, as for me, that was the part I was most anticipating.
Even then, the relationships between student and teacher and the students’ growth was up and down through various circumstances.
Alongside the story of Braithwaite’s journey with his students is his observations and experiences as a Black man in the later 1940s and 50s. From a white woman who refused to sit next to him on a bus, to those who refused to hire him once they saw him, to refusal of his renting a room, to a colleague making little digs by calling him “the black sheep” and “our sunburned friend,” to a waiter ignoring him, then spilling his soup and not offering to clean it up, Braithwaite experienced various degrees of racism. When asked by someone why he didn’t “stand up for himself,” he seemed to feel it just wasn’t worth it and would cause more problems than it solved. He had lived in the US for a few years and felt racism was more overt there at that time, whereas in Britain it was more subtle.
As the headmaster began to tell Braithwaite of the kinds of homes and situations the children came from, the latter thought, “I was becoming increasingly irritated by his recital of the children’s difficulties. My own experiences the last 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 only difference between the haves and have nots. I wanted this job badly, and would do it to the best of my ability. But it would be a job, not a labor of love.”
But, as you can surmise from the title, he does come to love the students. He felt his colleagues, except one, “accepted him unconditionally” and wanted him to do well.
A few other quotes that stood out to me from the book:
A man who is strong and tough never needs to show it in his dress or the way he cuts his hair. Toughness is a quality of the mind, like bravery or honesty or ambition; it has nothing whatever to do with muscles.
I sought to relate each lesson to themselves, showing them that the whole purpose of their education was the development of their own thinking and reasoning.
Mind? Oh yes, I do mind. But I am learning how to mind and still live. At first it was terrible, but gradually I am learning what it means to live with dignity inside my black skin.
It is not necessary for them to do anything special for a Negro or Indian or any other person, but simply to behave to them as to a stranger Briton, without favor or malevolence,but with courtesy and gentleness which every human being should give to and expect from every otherr.
I listened to the audiobook, nicely read by Ben Onwukwe. As usual, there was no back matter in the audiobook; I don’t know if there was in the print book. These days, stories based on true events often have a back section where they tell to some extent what situations were true and what were made up. According to Wikipedia, Braithwaite’s upbringing, education, military service, and teaching career were as portrayed in the book. But I would guess the students in the story were an amalgam of his real-life students. It seems like many events, as well as the progression of the story, might have been condensed somewhat from real life.
There are a number of instances of “damn,” “hell,” and the “b word” by Braithwaite as well as other adults and students. He notices and mentions students’ and women’s breasts several times. I almost didn’t get past the first chapter because of these elements.
But I enjoyed the story and felt I learned from Braithwaite’s experiences.
I don’t think I ever saw the film by the same name starring Sidney Poitier, though I want to some time. For some reason, the setting of the film was changed to the 1960s. The song from the film was popular as I was growing up.
I’m counting this book for the Classic by a Person of Color category for the Back to the Classics Reading Challenge.