To Sir, With Love by E.R Braithwaite

(via Goodreads)

Rated it: 4 stars                                Recommended it to: Everyone, especially teachers and their charges.

Goodreads blurb

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.

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8 thoughts on “To Sir, With Love by E.R Braithwaite

  1. “…racism, one many of us know only too well.” — what does that mean for you? To be honest, the only racism I’ve ever seen has actually worked in my favour—as a white teacher in China, our salaries were much higher than the locals’, even for the same skill level.

    Classism, though, is something I spent three years grappling with. Being from a tiny village (population: 70) in a part of the UK that people frown upon (Wales) made going to an notoriously aristocratic university somewhat challenging. So much was alien to me that eventually, it made me insane.

    I had some high school teachers a little bit like Mr. Braithwaite. In fact, virtually all of the lecturers/tutors who taught me in Cambridge were incompetent, careless or bullies… at least, that’s what I thought at the time. Maybe they cared more about other students, perhaps, and were singling me out? Maybe my expectations were too high? Who knows. Either way, it was horrible.

    (Everyone’s experience in Cambridge is different, so don’t let mine put you off!)

    I’d love to meet this guy, but it’ll be easier to read this book instead! Thank you for introducing it, and I’m pleased that unlike all the other books I tried to find in the library today, it’s both in stock and available! 🙂

    P.S. I also understand WordPress’ temperamental autosave, which means we sometimes lose drafts. I get around that by drafting all my blog posts in a text editor (TextEdit). And I apologise that this comment turned into somewhat of a rant…

    1. You know, I was a bit iffy about saying that. It was a general statement, it (racism) played a significant part in my country’s politics (I’m from Guyana too). From what my father had told me the things that were done to men, women and poor innocent children in the past because of it, what he said will remain stuck in my head, an unpleasant and gruesome poster. As far as it goes personally there’s not very much to say.

      I can’t imagine how it was life for you in collage, were most of the students like that? Was Cambridge worth it, considering what you’ve seen and felt? Maybe you views of you teachers were a bit clouded (the right word?) because of your awareness and sensitivity because of the distinction?

      I look forward to your thoughts on To Sir, With Love! I normally use Windows Live Writer but I was trying to wing it but it got me nowhere. It’s happened to me so many times you’d have thought I’d learn by now. I really don’t mind at all, I always find it interesting of what others experience, especially when it’s something I’ve little exposure to 😉 I apologize for replying so late.

      1. Being British, I’ve never witnessed the sufferings of invasion, occupation and revolution, yet I’m aware that people attempted to many atrocities with false, racist excuses.

        University is heaven by comparison. Armed with the ‘posters’ you talk about, you could probably breeze through university no problem. You might even enjoy it!

        I came from a boring, tiny Welsh village where nothing ever happens. There’s no ethnic diversity, no social class differences and no crime. Everybody’s white, everyone marries a local person, keeps more-or-less one job and lives there for the rest of their lives. It’s really dull, which made me particularly sensitive to urban, multicultural shenanigans when I got to Cambridge (promiscuity, sex-change, fighting, rape, drugs), to which many city-dwellers have built up a tolerance.

        It depends where you come from and what you’re used to. I stepped out of my comfort zone and hated it. My positive experience of racism, but negative experience of classism makes my “racism is rooted in classism” comment a piece of wishful thinking based on personal experience.

        Obviously, I like your blog 🙂

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