IN REMEMBERANCE OF A NOVELIST WHO TAUGHT ACROSS RACIAL LINES

 An oil and graphite painting of a scene from the To Sir, With Love film (1967) by Jerry Allen via Wikimedia Commons. 

An oil and graphite painting of a scene from the To Sir, With Love film (1967) by Jerry Allen via Wikimedia Commons. 

BY BEENISH AHMED 

Edward Ricardo Braithwaite, the Guyana-born author of To Sir, With Love, died this month at the age of 104 at is home in Maryland. Published in 1959, the novel is based on notes of his experiences as a teacher that he planned to burn before a friend suggested he develop a narrative around them. It was adapted into a film starring Sidney Poitier in 1967, which the author criticized for downplaying the interracial romance in the book. 

After service in the Royal Air Force and a graduate work in physics at Cambridge University, Braithwaite set out to find work as an engineer in London but is faced with a “betrayal of faith.” As he wrote in the voice of ‘Ricky Braithwaite’ in To Sir, With Love: “I had believed in freedom, in the freedom to live in the kind of dwelling I wanted, providing I was able and willing to pay the price; and in the freedom to work at the kind of profession for which I was qualified, without reference to my racial or religious origins.”

After a year and a half of unemployment, Braithwaite decided to try teaching and is posted to one of the worst schools in London’s East End -- and even there was confronted by the specter of racism. 

“It was like a disease,” he wrote, “and these children whom I loved without caring about their skins or their backgrounds, they were tainted with the hateful virus which attacked their vision, distorting everything that was not white or English.” 

More than half a century after the book was published, Braithwaite, who left teaching for social work and diplomacy, noted his disappointment at how little had changed for students of color since his time at head of a classroom. 

“I don't see much progress,” he told Coffee Table Notes in 2013. “I see change, but the fundamentals remain the same.” 

Still, Braithwaite said that he feels gratified by his work as a teacher: 

“I don’t know if I changed any lives or not, but something did happen between them and me, which was quite gratifying. I didn’t keep in touch with my former pupils. I had gone to the school to do a particular job and I felt that I’d completed my work with them. However, one of the strange things about life is how often circumstances repeat themselves. I’d be walking to work and people would come up to me and say hiya, Sir! There came a point when I was Sir to the parents as well as to their children.”