“The mediocre teacher tells. The good teacher explains. The superior teacher demonstrates. The great teacher inspires.”
These lines of William Arthur Ward come to mind when confronted with this masterpiece of literature and social commentary- E.R. Braithwaite’s novel To Sir, With Love.
Drawn from his own life, the story works on many levels, as a comment on society with its class divides and racial prejudices; as an insight into personal relationships; as a question on identity; and finally and most memorably, as an exploration into what it means to be a teacher and act as mentor, guide and inspiration for those around you.
Having returned from his sojourn in the Royal Air Force during World War II, the erudite and highly qualified Braithwaite found himself unable to find a job and ultimately forced to accept the post of schoolteacher at an institution in the East End of London. The novel is drawn from his experiences of that time.
The pain of receiving rejection after rejection at jobs he is fully qualified to do simply because of his skin colour and subsequently having to accept a job he considers to be below his standard is a humiliation he finds difficult to shake. Added to that the institution which finally agrees to take him is situated in the rougher parts of the city and peopled with a rowdy insolent bunch of students most of whom come from coarse backgrounds and many of whom are rejects from other schools.
However his initial chagrin and contempt of the students disappear when he begins to understand their situation and know a little of their lives. His character is a resounding example of a great teacher not because he instructs the students, but because he allows them to instruct him. Theirs is a relationship of mutual learning, for even as Braithwaite broadens their outlook and instills in them respect and dignity, he finds himself making amends for all his initial misgivings regarding the students and the institution. His time at the school restores his sense of identity and lends him new strength in his dealings with society and his own life. He recognizes teaching to be the miraculous and rewarding experience it is when the students all exhibit their love and gratitude towards a teacher who trusted and believed in them.
Very few books have successfully portrayed the subtleties and nuances of a teacher’s influence on students, and even fewer have attempted to understand the impact of students on a teacher. As such, for displaying the power dynamics of a teacher even while constructing a socially aware and politically charged book, E.R. Braithwaite’s novel speaks of genius.
Moreover, it really does make for a delightful read.
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