The crowded red double-decker bus inched its way through the snarl of traffic in Aldgate. It was almost as if it was reluctant to get rid of the overload of noisy, earthy charwomen it had collected on its run through the city—- thick-armed, bovine women, huge-breasted, with heavy bodies irrevocably distorted by frequent childbearing, faces pink and slightly damp from their early labours, the warm May morning and their own energy…. The women carried large heavy shopping bags, and in the ripe mixture of odours which accompanied them, the predominant one hinted at a good haul of fish or fishy things. They reminded me somehow of the peasants in a book by Steinbeck: they were of the city, but they dressed like peasants, they looked like peasants, and they talked like peasants.
To Sir, With Love
Author: E.R. Braithwaite
First Published: 1959
The book has been published as both a memoir and a novel; I’m uncertain how much has been fictionalized. In any case, author E.R. Braithwaite recounts the story of Ricardo Braithwaite, born in British Guyana. He arrived in England in 1939 to pursue his engineering studies, but soon enlisted in the Royal Air Force. During World War II, he found acceptance from his fellow soldiers and grateful members of the public.
After the war, his situation changes. His formal qualifications land him many job interviews, but prospective employees change their minds when they see that he is Black. He applies for a job teaching in London‘s East End, and finds himself taking over a class of troubled teens whose previous instructor quit.
Braithwaite faces many challenges. Students do not respect adult authority, though at least he fares no worse than the others because of his colour. A male student tries to goad him into a fight during Phys Ed. A girl burns a used menstrual product in his classroom’s stove. We quickly understand, of course, that these are not bad children, but poor, often hungry survivors of the Blitz. Braithwaite gradually wins the respect of his charges. He treats them as "adults," after a fashion, and requires they treat each other in class with the formal courtesies that would have been expected in the workplace at that time. While demanding a level of decorum, he addresses social and personal issues along with the established curriculum.
Several incidents bring them closer together: a female student’s problems with her mother and her own crush–cum-subsitute-father-search, a male student’s injury by a bullying teacher. Perhaps most significant is the funeral of a student’s mother. The student is of mixed race, and his female friends, in particular, initially refuse to attend because they fear the local gossip that would follow if they entered a "Negro" household.
The issue of racism does not disappear, but it never dominates the book. Race plays a more significant role in Braithwaite’s relationships with other adults. He must deal with inappropriate comments from the staff asshat. The attitudes of the general public, meanwhile, challenge his nascent relationship with a young female teacher. The adult clashes, he ultimately concludes, are "of no great importance, so long as" their "repercussions did not enter the classrooms. It was the children, not the teachers, who mattered" (137).
Braithwaite can seem self-aggrandizing and self-righteous. While he condemns racism for the dangerous nonsense it is, his own attitudes can be classist and sexist. A devout believer in the best of the British Empire, he enters the East End like a Victorian explorer some dark edge of the map, certain he must tame and convert the savages. This attitude, however, is hardly unusual among teachers. He allows that his own views can be flawed; he recognizes his tendency to judge quickly, especially when angered. Most importantly, he understands that youth need to make the transition into adulthood and personal responsibility, soon and quickly. We can quibble with the expectations his society has for men and women, but his intentions are noble. I found many of his attitudes less patronizing than those implicit in a culture which infantilizes everyone under the age of eighteen.
Edward Ricardo Braithwaite
Edward Ricardo Braithwaite (born June 27, 1920 in Georgetown, Guyana) is a Guyanese novelist, writer, teacher, and diplomat, best known for his stories of social conditions and racial discrimination against black people.
Braithwaite had a privileged beginning in life: both his parents went to Oxford University and he describes growing up with education, achievement, and parental pride surrounding him. He attended Queen’s College, Guyana and then the City College of New York (1940). During World War II, he joined the Royal Air Force as a pilot – he would later describe this experience as one where he had felt no discrimination based on his skin colour or ethnicity. He went on to attend the University of Cambridge (1949), from which he earned a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate in physics.
After the war, like many other ethnic minorities, despite his extensive training, Braithwaite could not find work in his field and, disillusioned, reluctantly took up a job as a schoolteacher in the East End of London. The book To Sir, With Love (1959) was based on his experiences there.His version of events at the school is contested by a former pupil, in Alfred Gardner’s autobiography An East End Story (Gardner, London 2002).
While writing his book about the school, Braithwaite turned to social work and it became his job to find foster homes for non-white children for the London County Council. His harrowing experiences resulted in his second novel Paid Servant (1962).
Braithwaite’s numerous writings have primarily dealt with the difficulties of being an educated black man, a black social worker, a black teacher, and simply a human being in inhumane circumstances. His best known book, To Sir, with Love, was made into a 1967 film of the same name starring Sidney Poitier, and adapted for Radio 4 in 2007 starring Kwame Kwei-Armah. Paid Servant was dramatised on Radio 4 the following year, again with Kwei-Armah in the lead role.
In 1973, the South African ban on Braithwaite’s books was lifted and he reluctantly applied to visit the country. He was granted a visa and the status ‘Honorary White’ which gave him significantly more freedom and privileges than the indigenous black population, but less than the whites. He recorded the experiences and horror he witnessed during the six weeks he spent in South Africa in Honorary White (The Bodley Head, Ltd. Great Britain 1975).
Braithwaite continued to write novels and short stories throughout his long international career as an educational consultant and lecturer for UNESCO; permanent representative to the United Nations for Guyana; Guyana’s ambassador to Venezuela; and academic. He taught English studies at New York University; in 2002, was writer in residence at Howard University, Washington, D.C.; associated himself with Manchester Community College, Connecticut, during the 2005-2006 academic year as visiting professor, also serving as commencement speaker and receiving an honorary degree.