sometimes witty book reviews
The incredible Edward Ricardo Braithwaite is 104 years old and his first novel To Sir, With Love is almost as good a story as his life history. A physicist, writer, social worker, World War II fighter pilot, race activist and diplomat, E. R. Braithwaite has done it all. This autobiographical work is based on his experience as the first person of colour to teach at a London, East End school in the late 1940s.
Despite being a physicist and the child of two Oxford-educated parents, after being demobbed at the end of the war in 1945, Braithwaite was unable to find any work in his field. He reluctantly applies for a position as a teacher at Greenslade School. He found his students to be barely motivated and indeed near illiterate. Seeing that the school’s very active approach to discipline was not working, Braithwaite tried a different approach. His students were soon to graduate and enter the adult world, so he chose to treat them as adults. He advocated discussion of any topic that interested them, as long as they thought about it. The crux of the work lies in the what happens when almost-adults are asked to step up, not told to. This the story of how perceptive teachers become life-long mentors.
As a novel, the narrative is slow and the descriptions very succinct. As a first hand account of London-life in post-war Britain, it’s brilliant. What I personally found surprising was the the issue of of race in Britain at this time. Braithwaite appears not to have been looked down on my staff or students simply because of his skin colour – a stark contrast to the attitudes black Americans faced in the same era. Indeed the only real race controversy appears to be Braithwaite’s choice of fiancée – fellow teacher and white woman Gillian Blanchard. Even then, the lovers’ parents appear more concerned for their children’s safety rather than the merits of the respective partners’ race.
It’s an easy read but a very rewarding one.
Reading suggestions: For once, I can highly recommend seeing the film adaption made in 1967, starring the magnificent Sidney Poitier.