Despite a profusion of titled earls in the world, this “Sir” was the most famous of them all. E.R. Braithwaite, author of the autobiographical book To Sir, With Love, passed away on December 12. He was 104 and in his rich, long life, he reshaped seemingly unbreakable notions of race, class and aspiration, with great conviction and grace. Born in 1912 in Guyana to a privileged, well-educated family, Braithwaite himself earned a doctoral degree in physics from the University of Cambridge. During the Second World War, Braithwaite enlisted in Britain’s Royal Air Force (RAF) as a pilot, describing the RAF as an environment free of racial discrimination.
However, post-war life was rudely different. Demobbed, Braithwaite found no work in his field in a cold 1950s Britain. With some reluctance, he took up a school teacher’s job in London’s East End, suddenly facing a classroom of deeply underprivileged and hostile girls and boys, for whom an education appeared pointlessly elite — and a black teacher, a joke to mock at. Braithwaite changed that. He rose above the racist taunts he faced and opened his mind’s eye to see and sense the deprivation, the hopelessness, the grime and crime his students lived with. Somewhere, Braithwaite’s own sense of being pushed to the margin met the marginalism of these youth, marking a sea-change in how he would approach his class.
Braithwaite decided to treat his students not as children, delightful or errant, but as adults, mature, responsible and deserving of dignity. By conversing with his students about their lives, views and dreams, by discussing what they’d like to study, by organising trips to museums that opened up their worlds, Braithwaite transformed their entire experience of being students encouraged by a good teacher. As each learned from the other — and taught the other too — Braithwaite and his class experienced that special, magical moment of teaching, which can transport you from the most sordid surroundings to the place you’d like to go. No wonder Braithwaite’s class responded with “To Sir, With Love”. So did many others around the world.