To Sir, With Love
To Sir, With Love
Eustace Adolphe Braithwaite
(Inside London bus, slow-moving in traffic)
Braithwaite: A warm May morning in 1948. The crowded London bus works its way through the traffic, taking charwomen and office-cleaners back to their homes in the East End; taking me to my first day in a new job - as a teacher at Greenslade Secondary School. Every seat on the bus is full, except the one next to me.
(Bus stops and starts again)
A slim, smartly-dressed woman gets on. Where can she be going, I wonder. She looks up and down the bus, but remains standing in the gangway.
Conductor: Fares please! Any more fares please?
Lady: A three-penny, please.
Conductor: Seat here for you, lady.
Lady: No, thank you.
Conductor: No standing on the bus, lady.
Braithwaite: Of course. I know her type - I don't want a fuss; after three years I'm used to this kind of thing.
(aloud) Next stop, please.
(Bell rings. Bus stops)
So I had a longer walk than I expected that morning, through the streets of the East End: rows of poor houses, mean little shops, bombsites still not cleared since the War. Smells and rubbish everywhere. Not quite the London I imagined, when I came to England from the West Indies, to join the R.A.F. And school-teaching was not the job I had planned for my future.
As a pilot in the R.A.F. during the War, I had been able to forget about my black skin. My blue uniform and the wings on my jacket seemed to make me welcome everywhere. But when I began to look for a job at the end of the War, things were different. I'm a trained engineer, so of course I began applying for jobs with engineering companies. I wrote application after application, was called to interview after interview, but the result was always the same. A look of surprise, and a polite - oh so polite - refusal.
Secretary: I'm sorry, Mr. Braithwaite - we did try to contact you - the post has been filled.
Chairman: Your qualifications are excellent, Mr. Braithwaite, but we are in a difficult position. Some of our English employees have been with us for a long time, and ...
Braithwaite: I knew what they meant. My black face was more important than my skill as an engineer. So teaching was my last hope. I had no training as a teacher, but at that time there were not enough teachers in London, so my University degrees were enough.
Greenslade Secondary School, where I had been asked to go, was a big ugly brick building in one of the poorest parts of London's East End. Not a blade of grass, not a tree to be seen. The pupils came from the streets of dirty little houses nearby, many the sons and daughters of dock workers, often unemployed. In those days, even in secondary schools, each teacher had his own class, where he taught almost every subject, and I was given the top class, of fifteen-year-olds. This was not a special honour; I got this class simply because another teacher could not control them, and had left the school suddenly.
My first meeting with Class 4 was not encouraging. A class of 42, sitting in four straight rows of desks. 26 girls - young women already, many of them - in tight sweaters and long clinging skirts; 16 boys in T-shirts and jeans, dirty and rough.
They received me in unfriendly silence, answered to their names with grunts of “'ere” and ”yeah”. How should I begin? I tried to sound pleasant and friendly. Good morning, Class 4. Now I do not know anything about you, or your abilities, so I will have to start from scratch.
The first lesson is English. I want to listen to you reading one by one. When I call your name, please read something from one of your English books. Er - Potter, will you read for us, please?
Potter:(hesitant, struggling with long words) How that personage haunted my dreams I need hardly tell you. I would see him in a thousand forms, and with a thousand diabolical expressions. To see him run and pursue me over hedge and ditch was the worst of nightmares ...
Braithwaite: They read badly, most of them; some were hardly able to make sense of what they were reading. One exception - a pretty red-haired girl, cleaner and neater than most.
Pamela: ... It was Silver's voice, and, before I had heard a dozen words, I would not have shown myself for all the world, but lay there trembling and listening, in the extreme of fear and curiosity.
Braithwaite: Your name again, please?
Pamela: Pamela Dare.
Braithwaite: You read well, Pamela Dare. As for the rest of you, I am not sure whether you are reading badly on purpose, or are unable to understand your own language. However, perhaps we shall improve this in time.
(Bell for end of lesson)
Braithwaite: Right. I'll see you again after the break. Lead out quietly.
(Class breaking up)
Braithwaite: It had not been a good beginning. The class had listened to me resentfully, and I guessed that sooner or later I would have real trouble with some of them. I did not have long to wait. The next day the ”noisy” treatment began. At any time, but especially when I was talking to the class, trying to explain something, or when I was reading to them, a desk lid would fall with a sudden crash, or a pile of books would be knocked to the floor, or someone would shout across the class:
Jane: Here, teacher! I can't understand these sums. They're too bleeding hard!
Braithwaite: (quiet but angry) Tell me, Jane Purcell, do you use such words when you are speaking to your father?
Jane: You're not my bleeding father!
Potter: 'Course he ain't! Bloody cheek!
Braithwaite: I had no answer to her vicious tone, no answer to the crude language and behaviour of the rest of the class. Something had to be done.
(Aloud) Silence! No, Miss Purcell, I'm not your father, but I am your teacher, and I want to tell you - all of you - something of my plans for this class. When I have finished, I shall ask you to give your views also. My job is to teach you, and I shall do my best to be as interesting as possible, but you also have a part to play. Most of you will be leaving school this year. That means you will very soon be adults. From now on I have decided that you will be treated, not as children, but as young men and women - by me, and by each other. You will address me as ”Mr. Braithwaite”, or ”Sir”. The young ladies in the class will be addressed as ”Miss”, and the young men will be addressed by their surnames.
Potter:(rudely) Why should we call 'em Miss? We know 'em.
Braithwaite: What's your name?
Braithwaite: I beg your pardon?
Potter: Potter(pause), Sir.
Braithwaite: Thank you, Potter. Now, is there anyone of these young ladies who doesn't deserve to be called ”Miss”?
Potter: Well – er – no, Sir, but...
Braithwaite: Very well. Now, I have some points about general behaviour. You must remember that you are the top class, and you must set standards for the younger pupils. You must try to be top in good manners and work. I shall help you to do so, because I think that you have a good chance of becoming a fine class, perhaps the best this school has ever had. Now, what have you to say?
Strangely enough, there was no argument. The idea of being treated as adults seemed to please them, and after a few early difficulties things began to work well. As the days went by, my relationship with the class improved. They became much more polite, and began to take more care with the way they looked. Some of them were very intelligent: Pamela Dare, Potter, Jackson.
After lessons we had long discussions, when they asked me about myself – my birth in British Guyana, and my war service. Not all of them, of course. A few were still very unfriendly, especially a big, strong boy called Denham, whose hobby was boxing. He and his friends were as dirty and rough as ever, and lost no opportunity of trying to make a fool of me, or, as they put it, ”taking the mickey out of me”. Once or twice I ”put him in his place” in class, and Denham and his friends worked out a little plan to get at me. On Thursday afternoon I noticed that the boys seemed unusually excited when I took them down to the gym for the usual P.T. lesson. They changed quickly and came into the gym, barefoot and wearing only blue shorts, except for one - Sapiano, whose arm was bandaged.
Braithwaite: Right. Line up in the centre, will you?
Denham: Please, Sir.
Braithwaite: Yes, Denham, what is it?
Denham: Can't we have boxing first today, please, Sir?
Braithwaite: Why, Denham?
Denham: Oh, nothing, Sir, just felt we'd like to have a bit of a change, Sir.
Braithwaite: Oh, very well. Get yourselves into pairs according to size.
Denham: Oh, please, Sir, Sapiano's my partner, and he's hurt his arm. Will you have a go with me yourself, Sir?
Braithwaite: I saw the plan. All the boys were silent, watching me.
(Aloud) No, Denham, I think you'll have to miss it for today.
Denham:(derisively) Oh, I see! We all see, don't we, boys?
Braithwaite: O.K., then, if you really want to – let's go!
(Noises of boxing – punches, heavy breathing)
Braithwaite: It soon became clear that Denham was a good boxer, fast and skilful. I tried to parry as best I could – all I wanted to do was ride this out till I could reasonably stop it. Suddenly Denham hit me in the face. It hurt. I could feel blood in my mouth. I was suddenly angry. As Denham rushed in again, I hit him once, a hard blow in the solar plexus. He doubled up at once, and collapsed on the floor. Potter and the others rushed in to help him.
No, no, leave him where he is, and line up quickly. Clarke, collect up the boxing gloves and put them in the box.
(quietly) Now then, Denham my lad, you sit down here for a bit; you'll be all right in a minute or two. That was just a lucky punch – no harm meant. O.K.?
Denham:(shaky but respectful) Yes, Sir. O.K., Sir.
Braithwaite: From that moment my relationship with the class improved.
Denham's attitude changed, and so did that of his friends. They could still be cheeky at times, but now there was no ill-feeling about it. At the same time I noticed how my feelings were changing. Instead of fearing each day, I found myself looking forward to teaching the class, to learning more about them all. It became a pleasure to be with them, to understand their difficulties, to awaken their interest in many subjects in and out of school. One day, against the advice of the Headmaster and the other teachers, I took Class 4 – all 42 of them – on an outing to the British Museum. This was the first such outing they had ever had. They all behaved perfectly, and there was a surprise for me the next day, when I walked into the classroom. The children were all sitting quietly in their places, and in the centre of my table was a vase, in which was neatly arranged a bunch of flowers. I turned to look at their smiling faces, and said, with a full heart, ”Thank you, all of you”.
So the term went by. One of the high spots was the Student Council on November 15th, a day arranged and controlled by the pupils themselves. I watched my class as they prepared for this day, and I was pleased by the business-like way they set about it. On the day itself the whole school met in the Assembly Hall, and each class presented a report on the term's work and activities. There was no doubt that Class 4 was the top class in every way. I was proud of them, and pleased to notice the astonished look on the faces of some of the other teachers. They could hardly believe that this was the class they had always found to be so difficult.
Not every day was quite so happy. One day early in December a sad thing happened which showed me a new side of my class. Only one boy in Class 4 was ”coloured”. Seales had a black father, though his mother was white. One morning Seales was not in his place, and when he did arrive, he walked quickly to my table.
Seales: Sorry I can't stay, Sir, but my mother died this morning, and I'm helping my Dad with things.
Braithwaite: With these words he burst into tears. I comforted him as best I could, and sent him home. Seales was a popular boy, and the class were clearly very shocked. That afternoon Potter stood up:
Potter: Sir, we're gonna have a collection, to get some flowers for Seales’ mum – for her funeral, Sir.
Braithwaite: That's a very good idea, Potter. I should like to give some money towards it too, if I may.
Potter: Yes, Sir, we’d like that. We thought we'd order some flowers from the shop in Commercial Road.
Braithwaite: I'm sure Seales will be pleased.
Who will take it over to his house?(pause) What's the matter with you? What's suddenly so difficult?
Jane: We can't take the flowers, Sir.
Braithwaite: What do you mean, Miss Purcell? Why can't you take them?
Jane:(reluctantly) Well, it's what people would say if they saw us going to a coloured person's home.
Braithwaite:(hurt and disappointed) I see, because Seales' father is black, you can't treat him like other people.
Jane: I don't think you understand, Sir. We've nothing against Seales. We like him, honestly we do, but if one of us girls was seen going to his house, you can imagine what people would say. We'd be accused of all sorts of things.
Braithwaite: Thank you for making that so clear, Miss Purcell. Well, what about the boys then?
Pamela: I'll take them.
Braithwaite: Miss Dare! Why should you be the one? Aren't you afraid of what people might say about you?
Pamela: No, Sir, I don't care. After all, I've known Larry, I mean Seales, since we were five.
Braithwaite: Thank you, Miss Dare. The funeral is at 10 o'clock on Saturday morning. Perhaps I'll see you there.
On Saturday morning I caught my usual bus, and sat alone on the top deck, as far from white people as I could. I was more shaken by what had happened than I can explain. I had given all I could to those children, but it had been of no use. In the end they made the same old excuses as their fathers and grandfathers: ”I've got nothing against him personally, but...”
I got off the bus and walked towards Priddle Street, where Seales lived. As I turned into the narrow street I could see a small group of neighbours outside the house. And then I stopped, feeling suddenly alive again. Tears sprang to my eyes, for there, standing in a close group, were my class, my children – all, or nearly all of them, dressed in their best clothes. I hurried over to be with them, and they welcomed me silently. O God, forgive me for my thoughts, because I love them, the bastards! – I love them.
The last week of term brought the School Christmas Party. The dining-hall was made pretty with coloured paper chains and balloons, and all the girls wore their nicest dresses. As I went down the hall, I met Pamela Dare in the corridor.
Pamela: Please, Sir, will you have a dance with me tonight?
Braithwaite: Of course, Miss Dare with pleasure.
Pamela:(laughs) Oh, thank you, Sir; I've got a special record for you. You promise?
Braithwaite: Yes, Miss Dare, I promise.
Pamela: And Sir!
Pamela: Will you call me Pamela, just for this evening?
Braithwaite: Of course, Pamela ...
Braithwaite: We had our dance, and I was proud and happy to be the partner of the beautiful, grown-up Pamela Dare.
Next morning, Friday, was the last day of term. I thought how quickly time had passed since the first time I sat there. In only eight months I had come to know them all so well, to like them as individuals. And after today, most of them would be leaving school, and going their different ways. Would they remember their ”Darkie” teacher, and the things he had tried to teach them? Suddenly Potter stood up.
Potter: Sir, I, that is, we want to tell you how grateful we are for all you have done for us. We know it couldn't have been too easy for you, what with one thing and another – but you kept going. We think we are much better people for having had you as a teacher. We liked best the way you always talked to us, you know, not like silly kids, but like grownups and that. You've been good to us, Sir, and we'd like you to accept a small present to remember us by.
Braithwaite: Here Potter signalled to Pamela Dare, and sat down amidst a burst of cheering. Pamela stood up, with a large, beautifully-wrapped parcel in her hand, and walked towards me. I took it from her, and she suddenly turned and ran back to her seat, to hide her face behind the lid of her desk. At the moment when she so wanted to be a grown-up, she had suddenly become a child again. As I was thanking them, the door opened, and the Headmaster came in. He had heard the noise of the cheering. Together we looked at the large parcel, and the card, on which was written: TO SIR, WITH LOVE, and underneath, the signatures of all of them. The Headmaster looked at me, and smiled. And I looked over his shoulder at them – my children.