Okay – so I’m odd. I read the obituaries – because I figure if you make it in the obituaries you had to have done something interesting in your life and I ought to know about you. But it also tends to serve as a sad reminder of writers we have lost and books I need to have read. So when I read the obituary for E.R. Braithwaite, author or “To Sir, With Love” (which most people only recognize as a Sidney Poitier movie) I thought – hey, I just graded a bunch of student work. I need a good book to read for a day and I’ve always liked the “teacher” genre of books, so why not?
So I just finished the book (borrowed from my local library as an ebook to my Kindle) and very much enjoyed it. The story of the Guyanese gentleman leaving World War II military service and becoming a teacher to low income children in London’s East End — teaching them to respect him in order to learn to respect themselves — was quite beautiful. He also discusses his mixed race romance (which later becomes a marriage) with another teacher in a frank and honest manner. But mostly he talks about the students and what they lack, what they need, how to reach them — and teach them — and eventually befriend them – always by keeping respect at the front of every encounter.
The book reminded me of all the teacher genre books I’ve enjoyed over the years – from the later Anne of Green Gables books (by Lucy Maude Montgomery) to Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman (which I both performed in in high school theatre and directed when I taught high school drama) to My Posse Don’t Do Homework (by LouAnne Johnson) to ‘Tis: A Memoir by Frank McCourt. What I find funny reading them nowadays is how obvious successful teaching is and yet how few can actually do it well.
Sadly, I remember the film never mentioned his romance as mixed race relationships were taboo by the Hays Code — yet Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, also from 1967 (and also starring Sidney Poitier) made it the focal point of their film. Perhaps if they had waited to make To Sir a few years later, it could have been included. That, of course, proves the point I tried to instill in my son years ago – always read the book that goes to a film because that is the only way to get the full story.
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.