In his novel, “To Sir, With Love”, E. R. Braithewaite traces the course of his relationship with his unruly charges, as a teacher in a rough school in London. I think Braithewaite was a resounding success, as he progressed from ‘a new blackie teacher’ to ‘Sir, with Love’, as he moulded the lives of his students and played a role model to them.
When he first met the students, he was faced with disobedience and hostility. They were indifferent to his attempts to integrate himself with them, and make them like him. I think they did not really cared about respecting Braithewaite as they imagined him to be as a ‘transient as his predecessors’. They mentioned him only briefly (and yet made a pointed reference to his race) in their weekly reviews. I do not think it was really their fault: they had had so many inept teachers in the past; they did not have any high expectation for Braithewaite “Another (Hackman)”.
Braithewaite went through three ‘phases’ in his relationship with the students – the ‘noisy’, ‘silent’ and ‘bawdy’ phases, all increasing in aggression. Matters came to a head one day as someone burnt a sanitary napkin in the class room, in what I believe was an act of testing the waters – they were trying to see how far they could push Braithewaite. That incident was the turning point for Braithewaite as he reprimanded the students, I think he realised that trying to be their friend would not work, Instead he decided to be firm with them, ‘not asking, but demanding,’ respect.
One hurdle that he had to overcome was the students’ social background. They had been ‘poorly fed, clothed and housed’, in places where the breadwinner was ‘chronically unemployed’. Their neighbourhood was ‘infested’ with ‘social vermin’. These children, I think, had never had any satisfactory father or role models that they could look up to. This, combined with their ingrained prejudice, made them feel that Braithewaite would be ‘another Hackman’ who by all accounts gave the children ‘too much rope’. Braithewaite had to realise that they came from homes where order was often accomplished by ‘a blow’ and in school where corporal punishment was banned, that he had to be strict in order to earn their respects.
His first triumph was his success in imposing ‘unfamiliar social codes’ on the children. By having them call each other “Sir” and “Miss”, I think he showed them a glimpse of what they could become – well mannered, courteous young adults.
Braithewaite quickly realised that lessons, unless they could relate to the students’ lives were of no use to the children. So he related the subjects and ‘tailored’ the lessons to suit the children and in this way, he showed them that the ‘purpose of education was the development of the students thinking and reasoning’.
In this way, Braithewaite gained the respect of the ringleaders of the children, except Denham. I think he finally ‘grew up’ in their eyes as he beat Denham, a symbol for triumphing over adversity. I feel in the end, physical force was needed to win over the children, and it speaks volumes about their social background.
After the boxing incident, Braithewaite became aware of in ‘important change’ in his own attitude towards them. Whilst earlier his aim was to gain employment, not rally caring about the students, he now found himself liking them, ‘collectively and singly’ and therefore more interested in their welfare and moral values.
The trip to the museum brought out the best in the children, as they came ‘scrubbed, combed, brushed and shining’. I think the children finally had a hope of redemption, as they went on with their best behaviour, surprising and delighting Braithewaite. He now begins to identify himself with them, calling them ‘my’ class and mentioning that they had become ‘a part of him’.
But this brought in a new complication – Pamela Dare. A girl with only ‘scruffy, untidy men’ to look up to, she quickly develops a ‘crush’ on the ‘big, broad and handsome’ Braithewaite, but I think her crush was not more than a yearning for a father figure. Both Pamela and her mother respected Braithewaite enough to ask for his advice on family matter. Braithewaite, on his part, is careful and conscious of his limits with Pamela – he treats her like any other student and without being too intrusive, he guides her and her mother.
Barbara Pegg’s mother, on the other hand, was not so tolerant. Bluntly refusing him a room to lodge, on the grounds of his colour, she changes her mind only because her daughter, horrified at her behaviour, wanted her to apologise. But Braithewaite sees this, also, as a triumph. He knows he’s ‘gotten through’ to Barbara. He had taught her tolerance and the ‘essential humanities’.
One person who seems not to have the ‘essential humanities’ is Mr. Weston. He is deeply prejudiced against the children and their background – and so is a contrast to Braithewaite. He calls his students ‘snotty little tarts’ and ‘blithe spirits’ and always claims that he is only a teacher for the money, and in this he is a marked contrast to Braithewaite.
E.R. Braithwaite was truly a remarkable teacher in the way he changed his student’ attitudes and perceptions to the world around them, and their behaviour and outlook in general. They had, in only a year, progressed from being unruly, rude and out of hand to responsible, polite and mature adults with their whole future ahead of them, and all due to him. I feel that he was the best teacher they could have possibly had and he deserved to be called “Sir, With Love”.