It’s odd how this book found its way onto my bookshelves growing up. I’m not sure who bought it, as it doesn’t really seem like a book that kids read, but we had quite a few of this series of books, published by Heinemann. And yes! That cover above is the very same one on the book I used to own.
The other books that we had in this series were Anita Desai’s A Village by the Sea, and Ursula K Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea. At least these were the three that I remember.
I’m not sure what I thought of To Sir with Love, reading it as a preteen. I liked it enough to read it finish, and be able to recall today some of the details about the lives of the teens, the dances at the school and their school outings. You know, those kinds of things that a preteen would be interested in. So at least those parts were familiar to me.
But to read it today, in my mid-30s, I am struck by how much I am affected by it, at times even angry at it. For it’s not just about being a teacher in England and teaching kids from a poor section of society, but also about being black in post-WWII England. In Braithwaite’s case, to have grown up in British Guiana, being taught British literature and history, and having a romanticised view of good old England.
“I suppose I had entertained some naively romantic ideas about London’s East End, with its cosmopolitan population and fascinating history. I had read references to it in both classical and contemporary writings and was eager to know the London of Chaucer and Erasmus and the Sorores Minores.”
But then being in England, he finds that things weren’t the way he was hoping it to be. After serving in the Royal Airforce during WWII, Braithwaite finds it hard to get a job because of the colour of his skin, and he turns to teaching. He learns that racism in England is a far different picture from that in the US.
“In Britain I found things to be very different. I have yet to meet a single English person who has actually admitted to anti-Negro prejudice; it is even generally believed that no such thing exists here. A Negro is free to board any bus or train and sit anywhere, provided he has paid the appropriate fare; the fact that many people might pointedly avoid sitting near him is casually overlooked. He is free to seek accommodation in any licensed hotel or boarding house—the courteous refusal which frequently follows is never ascribed to prejudice. The betrayal I now felt was greater because it had been perpetrated with the greatest of charm and courtesy.”
One of the most emotional scenes was when he was on a date with his colleague, who is white. They were celebrating her birthday at a nice restaurant. The service starts out slow, compared to that shown to other diners. The waiter isn’t outright rude nor does he refuse to serve them but “his manner casual with an implied discourtesy”. The last straw is when he spills Rick’s soup onto the tablecloth then sneers at him.
“The whole thing was suddenly too big for me, too involved, too mixed-up with other people, millions of other people whom I did not know, would never know, but who were capable of hating me on sight because of her; not because she was beautiful and good and cultured and lovable, but merely because she was white.”
I realize that I’ve been talking more about race issues rather than the teaching. This is a book that is about teaching teenagers after all. It is inspiring, the way he turns the kids around, encouraging them to learn, to be respectful to each other and to their teachers. He opens their eyes and makes them see possibilities, like, I suppose, any good teacher should. And it makes me wonder what happened to these kids after they left school. Braithwaite hints at jobs and apprenticeships that some were to take up, but we don’t know for sure. Braithwaite leaves us on a rather heartwarming note, so there is hope that everything turns out well.
I’m now rather curious about the 1967 movie version! Have you seen it? What did you think of it?
To Sir, With Love (1959)
Paid Servant (1962)
A Kind of Homecoming (1962)
Solid Lubricants And Surfaces (1964)
Choice of Straws (1965)
Lubrication And Lubricants (1967)
Reluctant Neighbors (1972)
Honorary White (1975)
Molybdenum, Vol. 19 (1994)
Hurricane Hits England (Preface – 2000)
Billingsly: The Bear With The Crinkled Ear (2008)
I read this for the Back to the Classics Challenge – A Nonfiction Classic