Sunday, January 26, 2014

To Sir, With Love

To Sir, With Love by E. R. Braithwaite
Open Road Media,  re-released 1/14/2014
eBook, 184 pages 
ISBN-13: 9781480457515

This classic schoolroom drama of a black teacher in London’s tough East End who triumphs over bigotry and ignorance to change the lives of his students forever was hailed by the New York Times as “a book that the reader devours quickly, ponders slowly, and forgets not at all” With opportunities for black men limited in post–World War II London, Rick Braithwaite, a former Royal Air Force pilot and Cambridge-educated engineer, accepts a teaching position that puts him in charge of a class of angry, unmotivated, bigoted white teenagers whom the system has mostly abandoned. When his efforts to reach these troubled students are met with threats, suspicion, and derision, Braithwaite takes a radical new approach. He will treat his students as people poised to enter the adult world. He will teach them to respect themselves and to call him “Sir.” He will open up vistas before them that they never knew existed. And over the course of a remarkable year, he will touch the lives of his students in extraordinary ways, even as they in turn, unexpectedly and profoundly, touch his.
Based on actual events in the author’s life, To Sir, With Love is a powerfully moving story that celebrates courage, commitment, and vision, and is the inspiration for the classic film starring Sidney Poitier.
My Thoughts:

To Sir, With Love by E. R. Braithwaite has been recently re-released by Open Road Media and is highly recommended for the intelligent narrative as well as the historical perspective on racism. 

Originally written in 1959 and set in the post WWII tough East End of London, To  Sir, With Love is a nonfiction account of a well-educated 28 year old man from Guyana who stumbles upon his teaching career by accident when he cannot find another job due to his skin color.  Braithwaite accepts the teaching position, but makes it clear that he "did not become a teacher out of any sense of vocation; mine was no considered decision in the interests of youthful humanity or the spread of planned education. It was a decision forced on me by the very urgent need to eat; it was a decision brought about by a chain of unhappy experiences which began about a week after my demobilization from the Royal Air Force in 1945." (Location 448)

After being jobless for 18 months, "Disillusionment had given place to a deepening, poisoning hatred; slowly but surely I was hating these people who could so casually, so unfeelingly deny me the right to earn a living. I was considered too well educated, too good for the lowly jobs, and too black for anything better."(Location 607)
He finds himself at Greenslade Secondary School in charge of 40 students. His initial encounter with the students is not what he expected: "I felt shocked by the encounter. My vision of teaching in a school was one of straight rows of desks, and neat, well-mannered, obedient children. The room I had just left seemed like a menagerie.... Was it the accepted thing here? Would I have to accept it too? "(Location 161)

The majority of the children could be generally classified as difficult with a disregard for authority. They are poorly fed, clothed and housed. They face a multitude of difficulties in an environment that is lacking in every way, however, as Braithwaite points out, they are, as a majority, white. He has faced numerous difficulties and hurdles based on his skin color. Certainly these children can be taught to overcome their limitations.

Braithwaite is very blunt and, well, insulting, in some of his descriptions and this is especially noticeable at the beginning of the book. For all his difficulties endured due to racism, clearly sexism was also a prevalent part of the times. I had to take into consideration the time in which it was originally written and place it in a historical context.

If you have seen the movie, it is impossible to read the book To Sir, With Love by E. R. Braithwaite without picturing Sidney Poitier and hearing the song sung by Lulu.
While there are many similarities, there are many differences too. The book is set in the late 1940s while the movie, released in 1967, changed the setting to the 60's. The book also deals openly with questions of race and the overt prejudice Braithwaite felt in Great Britain. The timeline for some events in the book is changed around for the movie. In comparison to the sombrer tone of the book, the movie feels light-hearted.

Disclosure: My Kindle edition was courtesy of Open Road Media via Netgalley for review purposes.

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