To Sir, With Love (novel)
|Author||E. R. Braithwaite|
|Pages||200 pp (paperback)|
To Sir, With Love is a 1959 autobiographical novel by E. R. Braithwaite set in the East End of London. The novel is based on true events concerned with Braithwaite taking up a teaching post in a school there.
In 1967, the novel was made into a film, To Sir, with Love, starring Sidney Poitier and Lulu, and the film's title song became a number-1 hit that year. The setting for the film was changed from postwar London to the "swinging sixties", and, notwithstanding its success, Braithwaite had ambivalent feelings towards it, as he admitted in an interview with Burt Caesar conducted for a 2007 BBC Radio 4 programme entitled To Sir, with Love Revisited (produced by Mary Ward Lowery). Also in 2007, the novel was dramatized for Radio 4 by Roy Williams and broadcast in two parts, starring Kwame Kwei-Armah.
The back-story of the Ricky Braithwaite is that he is a British Guiana-born engineer who has worked in an oil refinery in Aruba. Coming to Britain on the verge of World War Two, he joins the RAF as aircrew. Demobbed in 1945, he is unable to find work, despite his qualifications and experience, meeting overt anti-black attitudes. But after discussing his situation with a stranger whose name he never learns, he applies for a teaching position and is assigned to Greenslade School, a secondary school in London's East End, at which point the book actually begins.
Most of the pupils in his class are totally unmotivated to learn and largely semi-literate and semi-articulate. But he persists, despite finding that they are unresponsive to his approach.
Braithwaite decides to try a new approach, and sets some ground rules. The students will be leaving school soon, and will enter an adult society, so he will treat them as adults, and allow them to decide what topics they wish to study. In return, he demands their respect as their teacher. This novel approach is initially rejected, but within a few weeks, the class is largely won over. He suggests out-of-school activities, including visits to museums, which the kids have never thought about before. A young teacher, Gillian Blanchard, volunteers to assist him on these trips. Some of the girls start to speculate whether a personal relationship is budding between Braithwaite and Gillian. The trip is a success and more are approved by the initially sceptical Head.
The teachers and the Student Council openly discuss all matters affecting the school and what is being taught. The general feeling is that Braithwaite's approach is working, although some teachers still advocate a tougher approach to the kids.
The mother of one of the girls comes to speak to Braithwaite, feeling that he has more influence than she has with her impressionable daughter, who is staying out late and might be getting into trouble.
In the meantime, Braithwaite and Gillian are deeply in love and are discussing marriage. Her parents are openly disapproving of a mixed-race marriage, but realise that the couple are serious and both intelligent people who know what they are doing.
Unfortunately, the narration of Mr. Braithwaite’s problems in To Sir, With Love is greatly weakened by the rapid and simple solutions that he offers [...]. As his frequent acceptance of glowing tribute from admiring colleagues suggests, what chiefly concerns Mr. Braithwaite, regardless of the problems at hand, is the satisfactory projection of his own image as a rather talented and thoroughly civilised black man. [...] All that To Sir, With Love really achieves is a sordid demonstration of the author’s vanity [...].
Nor is his description of specifically racial problems any more discerning. Mr. Braithwaite is shocked when refused social status equal to a Briton with academic qualifications and level of conduct similar to his own; and he constantly stresses the ease with which he could assimilate into British society if only his colour were disregarded. [...] Prejudice against him is unfair, he claims, because of his social accomplishment, not because of his humanity; and he implies thereby that prejudice against black people who lack similar cultural habits may be justified.
Braithwaite's version of events was challenged in an autobiography written by Alfred Gardner, a former pupil, "An East End Story" (2002).
- Susie Thomas, "E. R. Braithwaite: 'To Sir, with Love' - 1959", London Fictions.
- Radio Drama reviews Online - To Sir with Love by E. R. Braithwaite, adapted by Roy Williams, BBC Radio 4 Extra, 18-19 May 2011.
- F. M. Birbalsingh (1968): “To John Bull, With Hate”, Caribbean Quarterly 14: 74–81.
- Dipin Damodharan, "To Sir, With Love In praise of a noble profession", Education Insider, 1 July 2013.