As a black man in the 1950s, a time during which racism was rampant, the odds were against E.R. Braithwaite. Few people expected him to succeed as an engineer, much less as a high school teacher in London's East End. His all-white students were disrespectful at best, and delinquent at worst—an impossible gaggle of undereducated, hormonal teenagers who had no respect for his authority. And yet, despite these bumpy beginnings, Braithwaite was able to turn things around by using a simple but unusual tactic: He would treat his students as adults.
Braithwaite wrote of his experiences in his autobiographical novel, To Sir, With Love, in 1959. Eight years later, it became the classic film of the same name, with Sidney Poitier stepping into Braithwaite's shoes. Like its source material, the movie is a stirring tribute to the powerful relationships between teachers and students, adults and children. It also serves as an example of how, by recognizing the inherent and equal value of every individual, we can transcend racial and class barriers—whether that's in the classroom, or outside of it.
In the excerpt of To Sir, With Love below, Braithwaite is still new to Greenslade Secondary School, located in a rough part of the city. After weeks of unsuccessful lessons, he tries a new approach with his students, and finally gets their attention...
Read on for an excerpt of To Sir, With Love by E.R. Braithwaite, and then download the book.
I was very keen to disprove the distaff view that the men teachers were inadequate for the job, and I had no wish to give Weston any occasion for gloating, so I kept plugging away, tailoring the lessons to suit the children. I would sometimes walk around the neighborhood after school to learn something of the background in and against which they had been reared, and though this helped me to understand the absence of certain social niceties from their conduct, it made that conduct no more bearable.
One morning I was reading to them some simple poetry, trying, by careful exposition and analysis, to give them something of the beauty it contained both in form and imagery. Just when I thought I had inveigled them into active interest, one of the girls, Monica Page, let the top of her desk fall; the noise seemed to reverberate in every part of my being and I felt a sudden burning anger. I looked at her for some moments before daring to open my mouth; she returned my gaze, then casually remarked to the class at large: “The bleeding thing won’t stay up.” It was all rather deliberate, the noisy interruption and the crude remark, and it heralded the third or “bawdy” stage of their conduct. From then on the words “bloody” or “bleedin’” were hardly ever absent from any remark they made to one another, especially in the classroom. They would call out to each other on any silly pretext and refer to the “bleedin’” this or that, and always in a voice loud enough for my ears. One day during an arithmetic period, Jane Purcell called out to me: “Can’t do this sum, Mr. Braithwaite, it’s too bleedin’ hard,” and sat there looking coolly up at me, her large breasts greasily outlined beneath the thin jumper, her eyes innocently blue in appeal.
“Tell me,” I replied, my voice chill and cutting with repressed anger: “Do you use such words when speaking to your father?”
“You’re not my bleeding father.” Her voice was flat and vicious. I was answered, and I shut up. You nasty little slut, I thought, I played right into your hand.
When the bell sounded for morning recess they rushed out into the corridor and I could hear her being congratulated for “putting the black bastard in his place.” Some of her familiars loudly protested against my question, considering it “bloody cheek” and expressed in clear Anglo-Saxon words what their replies would have been if I had dared to make any comment about their parents. Somehow or other my attempt to correct the girl’s language had been translated into a vicious and unwarranted attack on her parents.
After this incident things became slightly worse than before, and I could not escape the feeling that Weston had every justification for his attitude to the children; their viciousness was so pointless, so very unnecessary. Apart from their language other things were disturbing me. I would often come upon them, boys and girls, in the corridors or on the gloomy stairways, kissing and fondling with adult intentness; at my appearance they would break off and stand about, merely waiting for me to move on so they could resume their interrupted pleasures. After school they would hang about on the stairs or in the washroom, the girls laughingly protesting against the boys’ advances in noisy, bawdy terms; or sometimes I would see a group of them in a corner of the playground in a kind of combined operation.
Although I argued with myself that their conduct, especially outside the classroom, was no business of mine, I could not escape a growing concern about them and about my relationship with them. Besides, the younger children were imitating the behavior of the older ones, and some of the more adventurous small boys would even make “passes” at the older girls. One small boy miraculously escaped serious injury when he crashed through the glass roof of the girls’ lavatory white trying to spy on them.
This incident caused some very heated discussion in the staffroom, but oddly enough it was more concerned with the difficulties which would have resulted if he had seriously injured himself, than with the essential moral questions involved. The girls, too, rapidly recovered from the shock of being suddenly showered with broken glass and could be heard with their cronies in the corridor outside the classroom, laughingly reproving the absent adventurer for his stupidly roundabout way to so unimportant a discovery.
Matters came to a head one afternoon during recess. I had gone to the staffroom to fetch a cup of tea and returned to find the classroom smoky from an object which was smoldering in the grate of the fireplace. Several girls and boys were standing around joking and laughing, careless of the smoke and making no attempt to smother or remove its source. I pushed through them for a closer look, and was horrified to see that someone had thrown a used sanitary napkin into the grate and made an abortive attempt to burn it.
I was so overcome by anger and disgust that I completely lost my temper. I ordered the boys out of the room, then turned the full lash of my angry tongue on those girls.
I told them how sickened I was by their general conduct, crude language, sluttish behavior, and of their free and easy familiarity with the boys. The words gushed out of me, and the girls stood there and took it. By God, they took it! Not one of them dared to move or speak. Then I turned to their latest escapade.
“There are certain things which decent women keep private at all times, and I would have thought that your mother or older sisters would have explained such things to you, but evidently they have failed in that very obvious duty. Only a filthy slut would have dared to do this thing, and those of you who stood by and encouraged her are just as bad. I do not wish to know which individual is responsible, because you are all to blame. I shall leave the classroom for exactly five minutes, in which time I expect that disgusting object to be removed and the windows opened to clear away the stink. And remember, all of you, if you must play these dirty games, play them in your homes, but not in my classroom.” With that I stormed out of the room, banging the door behind me.
I went upstairs and sat in the library, the only place where I could be alone for a little while. I felt sick at heart, because it seemed that this latest act, above all others, was intended to show their utter disrespect for me. They seemed to have no sense of decency, these children; everything they said or did was colored by an ugly viciousness, as if their minds were forever rooting after fifth. “Why, oh why,” I asked myself, “did they behave like that?” It was nothing to do with my being a Negro, I felt sure, because Hackman had not fared much better. Then what was it? What was wrong with them? They’re trying to break me, I thought, they want to make me into another Hackman, lurking away in the staffroom when I should be in the classroom, should be the teacher in charge—the boss—as Clinty had said. That was it! They wanted to repeat their victory over Hackman. Fine, we’d see! I had done everything I could to meet them halfway, even more than halfway, but now I would take a very different line with them, even at the risk of contravening the Headmaster’s carefully expressed views. I was now no longer angry, but determined to take firm action to set my class in order. From now on the classroom would be kept clean, in every way; I would not be asking it of them, but demanding it. No more “bloody” or “bleeding” or anything else of that nature. And quiet, we’d have that too. No more banging desks. They had pushed me about as far as I was willing to go; from now on I would do a little pushing on my own account.
When I entered the classroom at the end of recess, the fireplace was washed clean, the windows were open, and the children were sitting quietly in their places. The girls seemed sheepish and refused to meet my glance, and I realized with something of a shock that they (at least most of them) were ashamed; the boys, on the other hand, were watching me expectantly, as if waiting for me to say or do something. I made no reference to the incident. As far as I was concerned the party was over; but I would need a little time to think up some effective way of bringing that fact home to them.
NEXT MORNING I HAD AN idea. It was nothing clear cut, merely speculative, but I considered it all the way to school. Then, after assembly, as soon as they were quiet I waded in. This might be a bit rough, I thought, but here goes.
“I am your teacher, and I think it right and proper that I should let you know something of my plans for this class.” I tried to pitch my voice into its most informally pleasant register. “We’re going to talk, you and I, but we’ll be reasonable with each other. I would like you to listen to me without interrupting in any way, and when I’m through any one of you may say your piece without interruption from me.” I was making it up as I went along and watching them; at the least sign that it wouldn’t work I’d drop it, fast.
They were interested, in spite of themselves; even the husky blasé Denham was leaning forward on his desk watching me.
“My business here is to teach you, and I shall do my best to make my teaching as interesting as possible. If at any time I say anything which you do not understand or with which you do not agree, I would be pleased if you would let me know. Most of you will be leaving school within six months or so; that means that in a short while you will be embarked on the very adult business of earning a living. Bearing that in mind, I have decided that from now on you will be treated, not as children, but as young men and women, by me and by each other. When we move out of the state of childhood certain higher standards of conduct are expected of us … ”
At this moment the door was flung open and Pamela Dare rushed in, somewhat breathlessly, to take her seat. She was very late.
“For instance,” I continued, “there are really two ways in which a person may enter a room; one is in a controlled, dignified manner, the other is as if someone had just planted a heavy foot in your backside. Miss Dare has just shown us the second way; I’m quite sure she will now give us a demonstration of the first.”
To this day I do not know what made me say it, but there it was. I was annoyed with the way in which she had just barged her way in, insolently carelessly late.
All eyes were on her as she had probably planned, but instead of supporting her entrance they were watching her, waiting to see the result of my challenge. She blushed.
“Well, Miss Darer?”
Her eyes were black with anger and humiliation, but she stood up and walked out, closing the door quietly behind her; then to my surprise, and I must confess, my relief, she opened it as quietly, and with a grace and dignity that would have befitted a queen, she walked to her seat.
“Thank you. As from today there are certain courtesies which will be observed at all times in this classroom. Myself you will address as ‘Mr. Braithwaite’ or ‘Sir’—the choice is yours; the young ladies will be addressed as ‘Miss’ and the young men will be addressed by their surnames.”
I hadn’t planned any of this, but it was unfolding all by itself, and I hoped, fitting into place. There was a general gasp at this, from boys and girls alike.
Potter was the first to protest.
“Why should we call ’em ‘miss’, we know ’em.”
“What is your name?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Potter, Sir.” The “Sir” was somewhat delayed.
“Thank you, Potter. Now, is there any young lady present whom you consider unworthy of your courtesies?”
“Is there any one of these young ladies, who you think does not deserve to be addressed as Miss?”
With one accord the girls turned to look at Potter, as if daring him; he quailed visibly before their converted eyes and said: “No, Sir.”
“You should remember, Potter, that in a little while all of you may be expected to express these courtesies as part of your jobs; it would be helpful to you to become accustomed to giving and receiving them.”
I walked around my desk and sat in my chair. For the time being at least they were listening, really listening to me; maybe they would not understand every word, but they’d get the general import of my remarks.
“The next point concerns the general deportment and conduct of the class. First, the young ladies. They must understand that in future they must show themselves both worthy and appreciative of the courtesies we men will show them. As Potter said, we know you. We shall want to feel proud to know you, and just how proud we shall feel will depend entirely on you. There are certain things which need attention, and I have asked Mrs. Dale-Evans to discuss them with you in your Domestic Science period today.” This last bit was right off the cuff; I’d have to see Grace about it during recess, but I felt sure she’d help.
“Now, the boys. I have seen stevedores and longshoremen who looked a lot cleaner and tidier. There is nothing weak and unmanly about clean hands and faces and shoes that are brushed. A man who is strong and tough never needs to show it in his dress or the way he cuts his hair. Toughness is a quality of the mind, like bravery or honesty or ambition; it has nothing whatever to do with muscles. I suppose that in about a year or so some of you will be thinking of girl-friends; believe me, they will think you much more attractive with clean teeth, hands and faces than without.”
I gave them a moment to digest that.
“You are the top class; the operative word is ‘top’. That means you must set the standard in all things for the rest of the school for, whether you wish it or no, the younger ones will ape everything you do or say. They will try to walk like you and use the words you use, and dress like you, and so, for as long as you’re here, much of their conduct will be your responsibility. As the top class you must be top in cleanliness, deportment, courtesy and work. I shall help you in every way I can, both by example and encouragement. I believe that you have it in you to be a fine class, the best this school has ever known, but I could be wrong; it all depends on you. Now, any questions?”
A hand shot up.
“Yes, Miss Joseph?”
“What about Mr. Weston, he’s never tidy, and his shoes are never clean, Sir.”
Things were looking up already; the “Sir” came easily.
“Mr. Weston is a teacher, Miss Joseph, and we shall not discuss him.”
There was a murmur of dissent at this.
“I am your teacher, and I’m the one you should criticize if I fail to maintain the standards I demand of you.”
There was an absence of the silent hostility of yesterday. I felt that I had somehow won for myself a breathing space at least. There were no further questions, so I told them they could spend the remaining minutes of that period considering and discussing the things I had said, providing they did so quietly. I sat back and observed them.
At recess I went to the staffroom and told Grace how I had impulsively committed her to a talk with the girls; she was quite pleased about it and promised to “lay it on thick.”
I have decided that from now on you will be treated, not as children, but as young men and women, by me and by each other.
That day passed pleasantly enough. I felt more at ease with them and applied myself enthusiastically to each subject, blending informality with a correctness of expression which I hoped would in turn help them to improve their own speech. I never spoke down to them; if they did not quite understand every word I used, the meaning was sufficiently clear in context, and I encouraged them to ask for an explanation any time they felt unsure. Meanwhile I was careful to discover the centers of leadership among them. Denham had quite a following among the boys; Potter, big and beefy, seemed to tag along with Denham through sheer laziness in asserting himself; Fernman and Seales were somewhat solitary characters, although they worked extremely well in class and played as boisterously in the playground as anyone else. I had expected that Pamela Dare would be a leader among the girls, but this did not prove to be so; she had one or two familiars, but kept very much to herself with a certain sullenness which I found both strange and intriguing. She was easily the brightest pupil, and her written work was neat and precise, in keeping with her personal appearance. Moira Joseph was the girl around whom the others circulated. She was tall, slim and vivacious, with a certain natural inclination to and aptitude for innocent seductiveness; most of the boys were ready to eat out of her hand. If I could get these king-pins to cooperate the others would probably fall in line.
On my way home that evening I walked to the bus with Miss Blanchard, and told her about what I had done. She was dubious about the wisdom of imposing unfamiliar social codes on the children, yet, as I had already committed myself, she hoped it would work. I was secretly pleased at the concern in her large eyes and felt more than ever determined to make a success of the class.
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Featured still from "To Sir, With Love" (1967), via Columbia Pictures; photo of E.R. Braithwaite: Alchetron