Whatever possessed me to put a teaching book on my reading list for the few weeks a year when I’m not in front of a classroom? You may well ask. I can’t account for it. Momentary madness? Anyway, I bumped To Sir With Love up to the top of my list so I could get to it before I wrap up teaching for the summer. When I picked it up, I thought it was a memoir; while writing this review afterwards, I discovered that it is a little closer to an autobiographical novel, with some elements fictionalised. I’m not sure how much is real, but it’s certainly heavily based on the author’s experiences. It follows Ricardo Braithwaite as he takes up a post teaching in the East End. Braithwaite takes the post as a last resort: he is black, having been born in the West Indies, and has been unable to get a post as an engineer after leaving the RAF because of the colour of his skin. The school he gets a post at has a reputation for being rough, with undisciplined students who won’t amount to much, and he certainly goes into the post thinking of it as a way to pay the bills rather than as a vocation. Despite himself, Braithwaite starts to like teaching and to develop a certain skill for it, and the book tracks his evolving relationship with his pupils and colleagues over the course of about eight months.
Probably the most interesting aspect of the book, for me, was the way that Braithwaite is forced to confront his own prejudices. This is a story of Braithwaite’s classism almost as much as it is a story of the racism he experiences himself. By the time he takes the post, he has been completely beaten down by his repeated rejections (often made for openly racist reasons), and has developed a fairly understandable level of resentment towards white Brits. He takes the post at the school pleased to be employed, but disappointed that he has been cut off from the profession he trained for because of his ethnicity. Perhaps that accounts for some of the prejudice he has towards people whom he perceives to be of a lower class than himself. His disdain for the working class boys and girls he is assigned to teach comes through clearly in the early chapters, to the point where it’s quite difficult to read in places. The narrative voice comments regularly, and rather sneeringly, on their appearance, clothes and state of general grubbiness, all accounted for by the fact that they are pretty much growing up in slums, sharing a loo with all the other families on the floor. Similarly, lots of the behaviour he objects to at the start is cultural – not the violence, but the way his students and their families engage in friendly banter, for example. He has no reason to object to all this except that it’s not “civilised”, not the way ladies and gentlemen behave.
This is captured in a scene towards the start of the book. Headmaster Mr Florian is trying to impress upon Braithwaite the general circumstances of his new students’ lives – the poverty, the stigma of being working class, the lack of options, the way they’ve been treated by other schools, the living conditions. Braithwaite is completely unconvinced: after all, the world is divided into haves and have nots, the haves are the whites, and the kids are mostly white. Yet Braithwaite himself has a degree from Cambridge, several nice suits, two years’ of savings, and Oxford-educated parents. The East End children he is teaching in the late forties are likely to be at least one of the following: a) recently returned evacuees – many of whom experienced intolerable levels of abuse with their foster families, b) bombed out of their homes during the war, c) bombed or shot out of at least one parent during the war, or d) living with a parent who is completely traumatised by what they’ve been through recently in terms of war service/the Blitz. They’ve had no consistent teacher because no-one wants to be teaching in the East End, so the post has very high turnover. They are poor, living in squalid, infested tenements, frequently mocked, and expected to do badly in life by everyone around them. The intelligence of those he is teaching is completely irrelevant in terms of prospects: not one of them will get to go to university or have “a profession”. Classism remains an issue in the UK (and I suspect especially in southern England) today; back in the 40s, it would have been endemic. Braithwaite gradually comes to recognise the effect that this has on the children he is teaching. Just as the students slowly start to respect and look up to Sir, he starts to respect and care for them, to recognise that they are bright and funny and kind to just the same extent as students in any other school. He devotes much less analysis to his shifting perspective of the students than theirs of him, and I was left wondering to what extent he realised he was overcoming a preconceived bias during the book – but certainly it’s as much a part of the narrative as anything else.
Despite my frustration with Braithwaite in those early chapters, I did feel sorry for him. To be stuck in front of an unusually unruly class with no training and no experience is a real baptism of fire. He begins by making several of the worst mistakes that a teacher can make: allowing the students’ comments to get under his skin, and letting them see that; responding with sarcasm (always a sign you’ve lost control of the room); visibly losing his temper. However, Braithwaite seems to have fairly good instincts as a teacher, despite his lack of training, and he does gradually work out how to manage the classroom effectively. Much of this memoir is given over to scenes in the classroom, and it’s interesting to see how much of modern teaching practice the eccentric Mr Florian was pioneering. For example, there is to be absolutely no corporal punishment. Every Friday, all the students are required to basically write a review of their experiences in school that week – he is clearly trying to get the students to think reflectively about their learning. Similarly, Braithwaite (with help from Florian) settles into the use of discussion and analysis as a key teaching tool, rather than rote learning – which is what a lot of schools would have been relying on at the time. I’m not sure how interesting this look at historical teaching methods would be to anyone who hasn’t taught for a living, but I found it fascinating.
The sexual politics of the book are uncomfortable in places, especially Braithwaite’s interactions with the pupils. I don’t particularly blame a man in his mid-20s for being attracted to girls in their late teens, but I do somewhat blame a teacher who can’t write about his female students without regular reference to the size of their breasts. It feels very of its time in that way (published 1959): he simply cannot introduce any female character over the age of about fourteen without discussing her physical attractiveness, or lack thereof. Similarly, one of the first things Braithwaite does to instil order in his classroom is introduce mandated sexism: girls are to behave “like ladies” and boys “like gentlemen”, ostensibly out of courtesy but actually because he’s shocked by the girls’ coarse language and friendly cameraderie with the boys. There’s a whole chapter dedicated to this bit of nonsense, so I had to remind myself that, in the late 40s, telling them they had to conform to those particular roles was doing them a favour socially. It’s pervasive throughout the book – everything from separate Boys and Girls entrances to the school (why? Were they going to get up to shenanigans in the queue?) to different responsibilities for boys and girls when preparing for a school event (girls make pretty things, boys lift heavy things). Most of this was, of course, not Braithwaite’s fault – he was simply embedded in the culture at the time – and I spent a lot of time being grateful I was not a teenager in 1947. Though, to be fair, plenty of that stuff was still around sixty years later – it just wasn’t being taught at school to the same extent.
For a slim volume, the book covers a lot of ground – more than I can get to in this review. One of the themes that runs through it is his relationship with a white fellow teacher. Interracial marriage in the UK has never been illegal, but in the 40s there was hostility towards interracial relatonships, some of which Braithwaite and his girlfriend experience. The book also looks at his relationship with the white English couple with whom he lodged during the war and after being demobbed (for whom he has such affection that he calls them “Mom and Dad Belmont”); the perspective that upper-middle class Carribean intellectuals had of the British Empire at the time; the way in which the East End was still scarred by dozens of bomb sites. And, of course, threaded throughout the novel is Braithwaite’s experience of being a West Indian in Britain in the 40s, along with all the prejudice he experienced. Most of what I’ve read about this book focuses on that element – hence my decision to look at a different aspect – and it’s certainly eye-opening. In short, I really recommend this – a look at a very particular time and place through the eyes of an interesting, if occasionally unsympathetic, narrator.