(My dear students’, a fortnightly column that is a conversation with young minds on current events, books, popular culture — just about anything that’s worth talking over a cup of coffee.)
My dear students,
Today I want to talk to you about “To Sir, with Love”, a classic memoir that is teetering on the brink of being labelled a forgotten classic. Our boards of education have salvaged this problem somewhat by prescribing excerpts from it. As a student, I read one such excerpt over three decades ago. This excerpt has stayed with me ever since. I picked up the memoir recently and of all the wonderful events described in it, this excerpt once again made the deepest impact on me. I want you all to read the book, so I will talk only about this excerpt, and leave you to discover the rest on your own.
The author, ER Braithwaite, is a man familiar to us; a person from the colonies steeped in British culture and education, a man who is British despite himself. But he is also a black man in 1950s London. He has a science degree from Oxford but he is unable to get through interviews without people stumbling over the colour of his skin. After eighteen months of searching for employment, he cuts a forlorn figure. He is dejected but also enraged, despondent but also bitter. He goes to St James Park and looks at the ducks. He meets an old man there who strikes up a conversation with him. The conversation changes his life. The conversation is the excerpt that I read.
Throughout the conversation, the old man is never identified by name. After the conversation, he does not make an appearance again in the book. There are two key passages in this encounter. First, when the old man tells Braithwaite that one must live, with fun and excitement, not just exist. Braithwaite replies ruefully that for a black man, just existing in a city like London is exciting enough. The old man laughs. That’s it. That was the old man’s response. Later, during the same conversation, when the old man counsels Braithwaite to apply to a teacher’s position in the decidedly rundown East End of London, Braithwaite replies that yes, that would be just the job for a black man. The old man’s response is to ask Braithwaite not to be a snob, and to get on with life.
After thirty years, when I read this passage again, I realised that I have learnt different lessons this time around. Thirty years ago, my initial reaction to the old man laughing was puzzlement. Wasn’t he being a bit harsh on poor Braithwaite? Braithwaite is making a point about the difficulty of living as a black person in London, and the reaction is laughter?
Today, when I read it, I realise the old man is asking Braithwaite to wear his burden lightly, as much as that is possible under the circumstances. The laughter is his way of commiserating with Braithwaite. Today, I am older, and I think levity is one way of addressing what would otherwise be a serious issue.
Yes, the old man, who was white, was in a privileged position, but a privileged position doesn’t disqualify one from humour. It is the old man’s remarks after Braithwaite complains about being typecast that caught my attention. Going to teach in a tough London neighbourhood is not a step down just because the kids are not as academically accomplished as Braithwaite would like them to be. The passage moves subtly from racism to make a larger point about meritocracy and discrimination.
The old man’s admonition is that that we should not become who we don’t like. The old man is reminding Braithwaite not to succumb to the same kind of unthinking prejudice that is making life hard for Braithwaite. I also thought the passage showed how Braithwaite was a decent bloke at the end of it all. He was out of a job for several months for reasons of pure prejudice and yet he was willing to engage with a white man and act on his advice.
One last thing, and I promise that this will not 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 which more aptly describe that sort of thing”. Braithwaite says “Good Lord, do you really think so?”, to which Gillian replies, “What else is there for me to think? They are always whispering little confidences to each other and surreptitiously holding hands. It’s unhealthy to say the least, and bad for the children.” “To Sir, With Love” is an achingly humane book by a man who knows firsthand the perils of blind prejudice. Yet, without the slightest bit of irony, he is recounting a conversation that traffics in the same idiom.
Perhaps we are too quick to judge Braithwaite; one can both be a victim and perpetrator of prejudice, often at the same time. You are today faced with a social media that is 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 admit our flaws.