Tuesday, February 7, 2023
HomeEducationWhy you must read ‘To Sir, With Love’

Why you must read ‘To Sir, With Love’

(My dear students, a bi-weekly column that is a conversation with young minds about current events, books, popular culture – just about anything worth talking over a cup of coffee.)

Today I want to talk to you about ‘To Sir, with Love’, a classic memoir that is about to be called a forgotten classic. Our education boards have somewhat remedied this problem by prescribing excerpts from it. As a student, I read such an excerpt more than three decades ago. This fragment has stuck with me ever since. I recently picked up the memoir, and of all the wonderful events it describes, this excerpt once again made the deepest impression on me. I want you all to read the book, so I’ll just talk about this excerpt, and let you find out the rest for yourself.

The author, ER Braithwaite, is a well-known man to us; a person from the colonies steeped in British culture and upbringing, a man who is British in spite of himself. But he is also a black man in 1950s London. He has a science degree from Oxford, but he can’t get through interviews without people tripping over his skin color. After a year and a half of looking for work, he cuts a lost figure. He is depressed but also furious, despondent but also bitter. He goes to St James Park and watches the ducks. There he meets an old man who strikes up a conversation with him. The conversation changes his life. The conversation is the excerpt I read.

During the conversation, the old man is never mentioned by name. After the conversation, he no longer appears in the book. There are two important passages in this encounter. First, when the old man tells Braithwaite that one must live, with pleasure and excitement, not just exist. Braithwaite regretfully replies that for a black man, existence in a city like London is exciting enough. The old man laughs. That is it. That was the old man’s answer. Later, during the same conversation, when the old man advises Braithwaite to apply for a teaching position in London’s decidedly run-down East End, Braithwaite replies that yes, that would be just the job for a black man. The old man’s answer is to ask Braithwaite not to be a snob and get on with life.

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When I read this passage again after thirty years, I realized that this time I learned different lessons. Thirty years ago, my first reaction to the old man’s laughter was surprise. Wasn’t he a little harsh on poor Braithwaite? Braithwaite makes a comment about the difficulty of living in London as a black person, and the response is laughter?

Reading it today, I realize that the old man asks Braithwaite to bear his burden lightly, as far as the circumstances permit. The laughter is his way of feeling sorry for Braithwaite. These days I’m older and I think frivolity is a way of tackling what would otherwise be a serious problem.

Yes, the old man, being white, was in a privileged position, but a privileged position does not disqualify one from humor. It’s the old man’s comments after Braithwaite complained about typecasting that caught my attention. Teaching in a rough London neighborhood isn’t a step backwards just because the kids aren’t as academically savvy as Braithwaite would like. The passage subtly moves from racism to a larger point about meritocracy and discrimination.

The old man’s warning is that we shouldn’t become who we don’t like. The old man reminds Braithwaite not to succumb to the same kind of thoughtless prejudices that make Braithwaite’s life so difficult. I also thought the passage showed how Braithwaite was a decent dude in the end. He was out of work for several months due to sheer prejudice and yet he was willing to go with a white man and follow his advice.

One last thing, and I promise it won’t affect your reading of the book. Later in the memoir, Braithwaite and his girlfriend, Gillian, discuss two women on the staff who are close to each other. Gillian says “there are other things that better describe that sort of thing”. Braithwaite says, “Good heavens, do you really think so?”, to which Gillian replies, “What else am I supposed to think? They’re always whispering little secrets to each other and secretly holding hands. It’s unhealthy and bad for you, to say the least. the kids.” “To Sir, With Love” is a painfully human book from a man who knows firsthand the dangers of blind prejudice, but without the slightest irony he tells of a conversation that trades in the same idiom.

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Perhaps we are too quick to judge Braithwaite; one can be both victim and perpetrator of prejudice, often at the same time. You are faced today with a social media shrill with outrage, a news cycle that divides us into saints and sinners, when for the most part we are a bit of both. “To Sir, with Love” reminds us that humanity persists among flawed people and that our best bet against prejudice is to always be open to admitting our flaws.



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