First published in 1959, E. R. Braithwaite’s book To Sir, With Love has inspired films in not just Hollywood, but in other movie industries as well. The novel’s themes of a teacher reforming an unruly group of students, as well as an underdog rising to the occasion, are universal and inspiring. In addition, To Sir, With Love is loosely based on true events in the author’s life, which gives it a sense of immediate authenticity. Further, the novel’s discussion of race—Braithwaite, or “sir,” is a black teacher teaching predominantly working-class white kids—adds another layer of interest.
In the book, World War II veteran Ricky Braithwaite is looking for a job. He is a British Guianese (from present-day Guyana) man who has studied at Cambridge, is well-mannered and poised, and carries the discipline of an ex-army vet. He is also black. This fact of his life cancels outs his other achievements in the racist society of the late 1940s and early 50s in England, and he is denied a job as a physicist. Although he is not trained as an educator, he is forced to take up a job as a schoolteacher in London’s East End, a lower-income area. It is implied that the only reason he is able to get a teaching job despite a lack of training is that few qualified teachers would want to work in such a tough area. Braithwaite is assigned to Greenslade School, a notorious institution where children are sent after being expelled from other schools. The white children in his class are disruptive, violent, ill-mannered, and casually racist. When Braithwaite cuts himself once, his students are surprised to see his blood is as red as theirs and that his color runs only “skin deep.” They use bad language and play distasteful pranks, such as burning a used sanitary towel in a fireplace.
It was like a disease, 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.
At first, Braithwaite is appalled by the students' lack of discipline and hygiene. Not only is he a well-spoken, highly intelligent man, he is also morally upright and composed. To such a person, the children’s behavior seems all the more horrifying. Initially, the inexperienced teacher also lacks the wherewithal to deal with a tough classroom. But slowly he begins to discover both a way to reach out to the children, and the reason behind their unwillingness to learn.
A child who has slept all night in a stuffy, overcrowded room, and then breakfasts on a cup of weak tea and a piece of bread, can hardly be expected to show a sharp, sustained interest in the abstractions of arithmetic, and the unrelated niceties of correct spelling. Punishment (or the threat of it) for this lack of interest is unlikely to bring the best out of him.
He understands that books may not be the best way to gain the initial interest of his students; so, he starts teaching the children through experiences and life lessons. He also decides to treat them as dignified adults and expects the same in return. Slowly, Braithwaite’s kindness begins to win the students over; he takes them on field trips to museums, and he listens to their problems. Moving on from their prior animosity and hatred, the students begin to show deep respect and fondness for their young teacher. He now truly becomes "sir" for them.
In the centre of my table was a large vase in which was neatly arranged a bunch of flowers. Some were slightly bedraggled; all had evidently been collected from the tiny backyards and window boxes of their homes. For me this was the most wonderful bouquet in the world; it was an accolade bestowed collectively by them on me. I turned to look at their pleased, smiling faces and said, with a full heart, “Thank you, all of you.”
At the end of the year, the students give Braithwaite a pewter mug as a parting gift, with a note that says, “To sir, with love,” which is where the book’s title comes from. Braithwaite’s journey as a teacher shows that treating students as team players, rather than passive recipients, is a successful, inspiring strategy. In the 1950s, this would have been an innovative approach to teaching. However, despite the text's uplifting message, Braithwaite’s narrative is not without flaws. He himself looks down upon his students as smelly and dirty because of their class, and his education gives him a slightly condescending attitude (in addition to his own Cambridge background, both his parents are also Oxford-educated). Further, his attitudes toward the sexuality of his girl students is puritanical, as he expects chaste and lady-like behavior from them at all times. Of course, in this he is mirroring the social norms of his time to some extent. Moreover, by presenting his own prejudices, Braithwaite shows us that his efforts to bond with the students involve overcoming his own demons. This makes his success as a teacher all the more hard-won and meaningful.