To Sir With Love
By E.R. Braithwaite
When Mr Braithwaite first encounters his class they are an unruly group of people who never manage to keep a teacher for long. They were mostly unkempt and scruffy and weren’t very well educated as Mr Braithwaite found out on his first day,
“ Twenty-six of the class were girls, and many of their faces bore traces of make-up inexpertly or hurriedly re-moved, giving to their youth a slightly tawdry, jaded look… The boys were scruffier, coarser, dirtier… the same wary sullenness” (PG 49 para.2)
Mr Braithwaite failed to make much of an impression on his class when he first arrived. In their weekly review all that was mentioned was a new ‘blackie’ teacher. Mr Braithwaite realised that his class went through phases with him. The first one being the silent treatment, where his pupils did everything that was asked of them, but without enthusiasm or interest. The second phase was the ‘noisy’ treatment, where lessons would be interrupted and there was general unruliness.
The first incident in the book, which changed the behaviour and attitudes of the class, was in the noisy treatment phase, when one breaktime, Mr Braithwaite discovered a sanitary napkin burning in the fireplace of the classroom. The room was smoky and there was a huddle of people around the fire laughing and joking. Mr Braithwaite was disgusted by this and ordered the boys out of the room so he could speak to the girls. He told them his feelings about the incident, how he was
“Sickened by their general conduct, crude language, sluttish behaviour and of their free and easy familiarity with the boys.” (PG 68 para.2) He told them to clear the mess up and open the windows to get rid of the smell. The girls we so stunned by his outburst that none of them dared to move or speak. When he returned to the classroom after break, Mr Braithwaite found it spotless. He saw that most of the girls were ashamed of what had happened.
After this Mr Braithwaite spoke to his class the next morning. He told them of his teaching intentions and what they could expect and also what he expected of them. He told them of certain courtesies which he would expect. After this Mr Braithwaite found teaching easier. In the pupils’ weekly review, he had made more of an impression. The pupils wrote how they thought some of the courtesies Mr Braithwaite had implemented were stupid, but they also wrote how they were glad that he treated them like adults.
Even though Mr Braithwaite had made the first breakthrough with his class, some of them were still unwilling to accept him. One, Denham, who was one of the leaders of the children, was always there to ‘take the Mickey’. Denham wanted to cause trouble and prove that Mr Braithwaite wasn’t good. On one Thursday afternoon after a day when the class seemed to have been distracted by something, Denham challenged Mr Braithwaite to box him in a PT lesson. It was an engineered incident, planned by Denham. Mr Braithwaite didn’t really fight back, thinking he could dodge the blows and then stop the fight. But it was obvious that this wouldn’t happen so he hit him and Denham collapsed on the floor. There was a stunned silence throughout the class. Mr Braithwaite helped Denham to sit against the wall, but he was only winded. After this Denham’s attitude changed and so did his followers’, he was not longer rebellious. Denham’s respect, because he was one of the class leaders, had now made it possible for the class to interact and work even better with Mr Braithwaite. Now he had his pupils attention, obedience and respect the lessons were much improved. They talked about everything, the pupils opened up to Mr Braithwaite and he learned much about them- what it was like to live their lives. Participation in the class was very good and questions were asked. Even at breaktimes, class discussions would go on.
“On Thursday morning when I arrived… the children were scrubbed, combed, brushed and shining. The girls were beautifully turned out and there was more than a suggestion of lipstick in evidence; the boys were smartly dressed and everyone was beaming happily at my delighted surprise.” (PG 88 para.2)
The class carried on improving after this and Mr Braithwaite really enjoyed his teaching. He was very close to his pupils. He believed them to have changed for the better, to have matured. But this belief was doubted when one of the pupil’s, Seales, mother died. When the class heard of this bad news they were immediately sympathetic and compassionate. The class proposed the idea that a collection should be made, in order to purchase a wreath of flowers for Seales. They raised the money for the wreath and Mr Braithwaite was delighted by their thoughtfulness. But then all Mr Braithwaite’s achievements with his class were shadowed,
“ ‘Which one of you will take it (the wreath) over to his home?’ Their reaction was like a cold douche… It was as if I had pulled a transparent screen between them and myself, effectively shutting us away from each other.” (PG 164 para.2) Nobody wanted to take the flowers because Seales was ‘coloured’. To Mr Braithwaite none of his teaching, talking, example, patience and worry mattered. They were nothing. He was bitterly disappointed.
On the day of the funeral Mr Braithwaite arrived at the street where Seales lived. He stopped, stunned. There standing on the pavement in a group was his class, they had come, nearly all of them. Mr Braithwaite’s faith in them was restored; maybe he really had made an impression after all.
“ ‘ I, that is we, want to tell you how very grateful we are for all you have done for us, all of us… We know it could not have been too easy for you, what with one thing and another… but you kept going. We think we are much better children for having had you as out teacher.’” (PG 183 para.4, Moira Joseph).