Poignant, moving and inspirational- this is the sum of events that take place between a critical teacher disillusioned by the world, their prejudices against the color of his skin- and his rowdy, stubborn students. This Teacher’s Day, read about how survival brings them together, and an unlikely relationship of love and understanding blooms and helps transform their lives.
To Sir, With Love is an autobiographical novel penned by E.R. Braithwaite, based on true events that took place when he was sent to teach at a school located in the East End of London. It deals with twin themes of discrimination and survival- and how empathy can transform lives.
Bright and ambitious, E.R. Braithwaite had served his country in the second world war as a pilot. However, after the war ended- he struggled to find a job due to the color of his skin. He managed to land a position as a teacher in a school located in an area stricken by poverty, where survival trumped the necessity of acquiring an education. The news of his appointment came as a welcome relief and a much-needed source of income, but the students under him were unfazed by his efforts to teach them.
They challenged him, disrespected him, and made their hatred towards authority well known. From boxing matches to openly disrespecting authority in the classroom, they left no stone unturned in their efforts to scare the new teacher away. Disappointed but undeterred, Braithwaite fights against their disillusionment, their mistrust- and eventually wins a place in the hearts of not only the students but the people in town as well. This is a story about survival and integrity in the face of all odds.
What I loved about the book is how Braithwaite slowly overcomes his judgements and prejudices against these children as he gets to know them more, and how he eventually comes to love and care for them. The children don’t hold back, either. One of the most heartwarming moments is when a student of his openly challenges racist remarks made by a passenger against their teacher on a bus. However, the “male gaze” is predominant throughout the entire novel, and Braithwaite’s descriptions of women are sexual and demeaning to read, especially for a female reader. He makes several comments on their figure and dressing that are irrelevant to the plot, remarking on “child-bearing” bodies in disdain and presuming that everything women wear and do cater to men’s sexual fantasies. In today’s age of fourth-wave feminism, it is distressing to read such outdated and sexist remarks.
Rest assured; the issue of racial discrimination is wonderfully portrayed. A lot of values and how he imparts his lessons is rooted in his fight against society and their discrimination against black people. Instead of repeating the mistakes committed by his predecessors, Braithwaite approaches the students with respect and dignity- choosing to teach them through love and understanding rather than resorting to punishments. He is all too familiar with how it feels to be belittled and treated with inferiority and refuses to do the same to his students.
It holds a powerful message in empathy, inclusion, and compromise for every student and teacher, and continues to be relevant today, because “Belief in an ideal dies hard”.
Image Credits: The movie “To Sir, With Love”