Despite its flaws, this is a deeply affecting book, the semi-autobiographical account of a black electrical engineer who, after demobilisation at the end of the Second World War, finds himself unable to obtain employment except in a failing school in London’s East End. The children are ill-mannered, defiant and barely literate; one gets the sense that Braithwaite is fictionalising, or at least selecting his truths to make his point, but it does not particularly matter. He is a prose writer of distinction, conveying honest and powerful emotion. A naïve reading of the book would suggest that Braithwaite is the only teacher at Greenslade who ever managed to teach competently, but a more nuanced and sympathetic approach would be to consider that, as is natural and even, from a literary standpoint, desirable, he speaks of the particular challenges he faced and the methods he found best.
His method, when their uncooperativeness stretches him to breaking point, is to demand that the young men and women in his class treat him and each other with respect; to treat them as adults who will soon be earning a living, rather than the juvenile delinquents they are viewed as by the magistrates’ court. The accuracy of the story to life (it has been criticised for depicting the process of winning their respect, self-congratulatorily, as all too simple) is really neither here nor there; he charts his gradual acceptance by the students, and the slow progress they make from unruly children to adults of whom he is proud. At the same time, he battles the prejudices of the time; theirs, those of the denizens of the East End, and those of the parents of the white woman with whom he falls in love. (This plot is, to my mind, the least interesting, possibly because we are not really given any development of the woman’s character; not compared to what we see of Braithwaite or many of his students.) It is an excellent book about the benefits to be derived from treating children like adults.
He speaks to us as if we understand all the words he uses, and most of us try to look as if we do.
Too much goes on in this book for it to be easily summarised; those are the bare bones. It was adapted into an excellent film with Sidney Poitier, and it is worth watching that after reading the book, if only for the interesting variations – some for space, certainly, but others thematic. Note that the setting is moved from the late fifties to the sixties, which on its own means certain shifts of tone. The other reason to watch it, of course, is the magnificent intensity of which Poitier is capable, and the power and force which he brings to the role.
To Sir, With Love
Author ER Braithwaite
Best character Toss-up between Denham, the hot-tempered pugilist (“If I’d had the wood I’d have done the f—er in and no bleeding body would have stopped me”), and the Old Man, as Mr Florian, the headmaster, is known (“This little man always seemed to grow larger as he spoke; as if to compensate for his twisted frame he had been given a saintliness, a deep patient wisdom which quite dwarfed bigger, more imposing men”).