Rated it: 4 stars Recommended it to: Everyone, especially teachers and their charges.
He shamed them, wrestled with them, enlightened them, and – ultimately – learned to live them. Mr. Braithwaite, the new teacher, had first to fight the class bully. Then he taught defiant, hard-bitten delinquents to call him “Sir,” and to address the girls who had grown up beside them in the gutter as “Miss”.
He taught them to wash their faces and to read Shakespeare. When he took all forty six to museums and to the opera, riots we predicted. But instead of a catastrophe, a miracle happened. A dedicated teacher had turned hate into love, teenage rebelliousness into self-respect, contempt into into consideration for others. A man’s own integrity – his concern and love for others – had won through.
The modern classic about a dedicated teacher in a tough London school who slowly and painfully breaks down the barriers of racial prejudice. It is the story of a man’s own integrity winning through against the odds.
“A book that the reader devours quickly, ponders slowly, and forgets not at all.” – The New York Times
I read this more than a week and a half ago so I’ll admit my memory and initial impressions aren’t that fresh. Also, this would be the third attempt to review this because two times already when I was about to save it everything was wiped almost squeaky clean. Need I say more? To Sir, With Love is in part an autobiography and part fiction set in what I average to be somewhere near the late to mid 1940s or early 1950s in the lesser fortunate parts of London at the Greenslade Secondary School, which I think is fictional too.
When it begins, on his first day Mr. Braithwaite was commuting to the school in the company of a busload of lively and sociable housewives, we the readers confront the first instance of the major theme in the book: racism, one many of us know only too well. He had no prior experience with teaching before coming to the school but it was a last resort because, as he soon confides, he was rejected from the jobs that would have better suited his qualifications as an engineer solely because of the colour of his skin. He expresses to us his feelings towards them, his struggle to remember that not every white woman or man is a big ball of hate and it was one of those that led him to teaching, this I believe is a fact.
Caught like an insect in the tweezer-like grip of prejudice, I felt myself striking out in unreasoning retaliation. I became distrustful of every glance or gesture, seeking to probe behind them to expose the antipathy and intolerance, which I felt sure, was there …
… Fortunately for me, this cancerous condition was not allowed to establish itself firmly. Every now and then, and in spite of myself, some person or persons would say or do something so utterly unselfish and friendly that I would temporarily forget my difficulties and hurts. It was from such an unexpected quarter that I received the helpful advice which changed the whole course of my life.
– Pages 44 to 45
I took joy from watching the transition of the relationship between him and his students but all the while I was a pinch skeptical. Is this possible? But then I think I might be a cynic. I’d like to believe that patience, understanding and compassion can get through to people like it had with these impressionable kids but I won’t take it for granted that such an approach would always succeed, the world doesn’t work that way. That was just something I wanted to point out, but seeing that he had gotten through to them filled me with a gladness that he even tried. Put his heart into the challenge and really tried to give those children a chance to make themselves more that what they already were, what they can be.
I liked the gradual acceptance he also won from the parents and the people from the area (he was new to those parts). Another part what I found interesting is the decisions Mr. Braithwaite had to make, the feelings he had either to embrace or turn away from. I won’t deny I didn’t l enjoy the staffroom drama. Each teacher, each student and each character that Braithwaite had bothered to mention had their persona clearly defined, they had a ‘their-ness’ that said, “This is me, I’m different, you either like me or you don’t,” and each had their own to add to this interesting mix of class room happenings, and even to the events outside of it.
Whenever I pick this up to read, I feel myself being taken to a cozy little living room and by the fire with rain pattering at the windows (it’s fixed in my head that in England it’s raining more than half of the time). All in all, it’s a beautiful book that I will no doubt turn to again and again. Confession: there were times when I disliked him but the fact I can’t exactly remember why I did goes to prove that it doesn’t matter anymore. I’ll steal a line from the blurb that very much comes close to resounding with my thoughts:
A dedicated teacher had turned hate into love, teenage rebelliousness into self-respect, contempt into into consideration for others. A man’s own integrity – his concern and love for others – had won through.