To Sir, with Love Summary
To Sir, with Love is a novel by E.R. Braithwaite that recounts Braithwaite's personal experiences as a teacher in London, where his unorthodox teaching methods won him the affections of his students.
Braithwaite struggles to find steady work after World War II. Eventually, he gets a job as a teacher in London.
Braithwaite's students are semi-literate and largely uninterested in learning. They don't respect Braithwaite, and he struggles to teach them using the official curricula of the school.
- Finally, Braithwaite decides to switch tactics and engage his student's interests directly. He finally gets through to his students, and they come to love him.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 534
A red double-decker bus is crowded as it creeps through the morning traffic in Algate. A man is surrounded by the rather large, crude, but good-hearted women who have already been out to do their morning shopping. As a result, the bus smells heavily of fresh fish. He is the only man on the bus besides the conductor, and his is the only black face. The women banter and make sexual innuendos; he smiles at their good-natured teasing.
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The bus moves through a rather dingy part of the city, and the women disembark with their shopping bags one by one. A “slim, smartly dressed woman” gets on the bus and starts to sit down—until she sees that the man she would be sitting next to is black. She decides to stand despite the conductor’s less-than-subtle hints that there is an empty seat for her if she would choose to take it. Just as the conductor is about to humiliate the arrogant and prejudiced woman, the passenger in question sees his destination ahead and asks to get off at the next stop. The conductor gives the man an “odd disapproving stare,” as if he had ruined the official’s battle plans. The man thinks he is doing the conductor a favor, for this is a battle he will never win.
The man stands on a corner of London’s East End, which he has so romanticized because he has read so many references to it in the works of Chaucer and Erasmus, among others. It is a site full of history in his imaginings, but the reality is different. The streets are noisy and littered and full of dirt and flies. The smells are “a sickening, tantalizing discomfort.” He forces himself to walk toward his destination: Greenslade Secondary School.
As he gets closer, a small boy with a Cockney accent is just emerging from the bathroom; he has obviously been smoking. The boy asks if he can help, and the man asks for the headmaster. The boy points and the man knocks, as instructed, on the door of the headmaster, Alex Florian. He is a small man with a large head full of white, curly hair and large eyes. Though the external surroundings are obviously less than pristine, his office is neat and orderly. The short man is “nattily” dressed. He stands to greet Ricardo “Rick” Braithwaite, whom he has been expecting.
It is a warm greeting, and Braithwaite is reassured by his sincerity. Braithwaite assures him he had no trouble finding the building, as he followed the directions given to him by the Divisional Office. Florian says they are pleased to have him join the staff and, after he has had a chance to become familiar with the school, hopes he will want to stay. When Braithwaite expresses his assurance that he will like it here, the headmaster smiles and tells him things are done a little differently here than in most schools, so he tells him to wander around and see if this is the place he really wants to be. If he does, they will talk again after lunch. Florian ushers Braithwaite out the door and shuts it behind him.
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This school is, as Headmaster Florian told him, a very different kind of school. As Braithwaite walks through the hallways, he is nearly knocked over by several students running out of a classroom. He knocks and enters to see what is happening, only to find forty students unattended. By their dress and demeanor, they seem to be well aware of their maturing bodies. Everything is “a bit soiled and untidy, as if too little attention were paid to washing either themselves or their flashy finery.”
When Braithwaite enters, he is accosted by students wondering if he is the replacement for their teacher, Mr. Hackman, or “Old Hack.” Hack left the room and went to the staff room, telling his students to send someone for him when they were ready to behave, and they wonder if Braithwaite has come to take his place. As they surround him, he tells them he will check on Mr. Hackman. This is not what he imagined when he thought of his first teaching job. There are no neat rows of desks filled with students eager to learn.
Braithwaite leaves the class room and goes to the staff room. On the way, he meets the student who nearly knocked him over coming out of the room. A rather untidy man greets Braithwaite and immediately makes a joke about his color. Braithwaite introduces himself and says he is from the Divisional Office; he is told that Hackman was here but left shortly after arriving and is probably registering his complaints with the Divisional Officer. Mrs. Grace Dale-Evans enters and begins cleaning up the staff lounge. She asks Braithwaite if this is his first teaching job and if he has been in the military; he tells her he was in the Royal Air Force. She invites him to eat lunch at the school, and he accepts.
The staffroom is full of miscellany and is almost as dingy as the outside surroundings. As he walks out of the building and into the courtyard, he sees litter everywhere and finds the place as depressing as a prison yard. He thinks about how different this is from his schooldays in British Guiana; they were rich, happy days filled with achievements, accomplishments, and interested parents. He wonders if any of the students here are as excited about going to school as he once was. Suddenly children are everywhere, released for recess, and Braithwaite goes back to the lounge.
Soon other teachers enter, and Mrs. Grace Dale-Evans introduces him to each of them in turn. Miss Josey Dawes is a short, strong-looking woman dressed in gray flannel. Miss Euphemia Phillips is a rather mousy and immature-looking young woman. Theo Weston, the man he met earlier, tells his colleagues that Hackman has “escaped.” Mrs. Drew is a matronly woman who is the Headmaster’s assistant. Miss Vivienne Clintridge is the kind art teacher and Miss Gillian Blanchard is the prettiest one in the room and the newest staff member. All of them ask him if he will be willing to stay; Braithwaite is so thankful for the job that he had never considered not taking the position. He asks Miss Blanchard why everyone is trying to convince him to stay; she explains that though she has only been there three days, she knows there is “something rather odd…rather frightening and challenging” about this place.
Mrs. Grace Dale-Evans says she has to help one of the girls bathe because her mother does not help her get clean and other students are complaining. She invites Braithwaite to visit her Domestic Science Department, where he sees that she is firm and has high expectations for cleanliness and order for her students. They work for her without any kind of abuse, and this gives him hope for his own successful classroom.
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At lunch, the teachers sit at a table slightly separated from the students. Headmaster Florian prays for the entire room and then the noisy business of lunch begins. Each person at each table is assigned a job, and the meal is conducted efficiently and finished quickly. When Florian stands, there is a hush before he signals to each table its permission to leave. Soon the sound of dance music emanates from the auditorium. Miss Clintridge explains that students are allowed to turn the room into a dance hall for forty-five minutes each day. Sometimes even the teachers join them.
Weston speaks up and says that dancing for these students is not a simple, innocent pastime. Instead, the “energetic morons” are using dance as their voluntary exercise to stay fit for their primary pastime—“teacher-baiting.” The ladies tell Braithwaite to ignore their colleague’s joking and scold him for being so discouraging. Weston assures them he wants the new man to stay. Braithwaite decides to observe the dancing.
These students are very good dancers, and the girls take great pleasure at showing their legs to the appreciative boys. The red-headed girl with whom he had nearly collided this morning asks him to dance, but Braithwaite mumbles a no and weaves his way through the gyrating crowd. He is “disturbed and excited at the prospect and challenge of having to cope with such nearly adult individuals.”
He meets with the headmaster, and Florian asks him immediately if this is someplace he wants to work. When Braithwaite, with controlled enthusiasm, says yes, Florian outlines his policies for this school. He explains that most of these students are classified as “difficult” because they have defied or disregarded the more traditional forms of authority found in most schools. Here, he says, they should not be forced or restricted by “arbitrary whim.” These are students who come from disadvantaged homes, and it is his hope that every teacher will strive to understand that and try to help them.
As Florian outlines the difficult circumstances of his students, Braithwaite finds himself getting angry; his experience has taught them that they have the greatest advantage any students can have—they are white. That, to him, is the single biggest divider between those who have and those who have not. Florian continues, saying they are often rude and apt to bad habits such as smoking and swearing; these are things they no doubt learn from the “unsatisfactory influences” of their neighborhood. Braithwaite can see that the headmaster truly loves the students, but he speaks of them as tiny, defenseless children rather than young people already practicing adulthood.
Others say this school practices “free discipline”; instead, they strive to “establish disciplined freedom.” Students should be free to express themselves without fear, and though they will never achieve much in life with their academic endeavors, the teachers strive to ensure their “limited abilities” are maximized. Students are encouraged to speak up for themselves here; the hope is that they will learn “directness without rudeness.” His hope is that the influence of the teachers will outweigh the evil which surrounds these students. Florian pauses for a moment and then admits he has nothing more to offer him. Braithwaite will be on his own from the first moment on; others may offer advice, but his success or failure will be in his own hands.
The headmaster vows not to interfere as long as Braithwaite stays within the confines of the guidelines he just outlined. Starting tomorrow, Braithwaite will have charge of the top class and will share the boys’ physical education duty with the other men on staff. He is advised to get familiar with things the rest of the afternoon. Florian shakes his hand and tells his newest teacher that these are good children and he thinks somehow Braithwaite will find a way to appreciate them.
In the staff room, Braithwaite announces he will be taking Hackman’s place. Most of the teachers tease him, but Mrs. Drew begins to show him the duties he will need to perform and Braithwaite spends the afternoon in her class, “observing and admiring” the way she mixes firmness, patience, and activity. There is chaotic noise as they work, but she believes when students are busy they are learning.
On his way home, Braithwaite is ecstatic at this opportunity to work “in terms of dignified equality in an established profession.” Today he is a teacher. What he does not know, he will learn. Four years ago this did not seem possible. He did not become a teacher for any altruistic reasons; he was forced to it by his simple need to eat. It all happened because of some unfortunate experiences beginning a week after his release from the RAF in 1945.
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At the Demobilization Center, Braithwaite was encouraged when he was told his experience in engineering technology as well as his advanced degree in science would stand him in good stead as he went about finding a civilian job. Braithwaite was meticulous about staying current with all new developments in his field and subscribed to all the professional and technical journals. He was confident he would be able to get and hold a good job.
During the war, he met an elderly couple, and he promised to stay with them after his demobilization. The Belmonts were kind people in every way and shared many of his interests and pursuits with an energy that belied their age. After a two-week holiday with them, he met with the Appointments Office and was assured that with his experience as a Communications Engineer for the Standard Oil Company he would be highly employable. Two weeks later, he received a letter from them along with a list of three firms which had vacancies for qualified Communications Engineers. Braithwaite wrote each of them and received scheduled interviews with each of them.
For his first interview, Braithwaite was dressed as a professional in the perfect shirt, tie, and pocket handkerchief; his shoes were polished and he was “wearing his best smile.” The receptionist treated him coldly, but the interview went well. Four men asked him numerous technical questions to gauge his level of expertise, and Braithwaite was at ease since he had been so careful to maintain his skills even during the war. At the end of the interview, one of the men told him he was “abundantly suited” to the job, but they could not hire him to be in a position of authority because too many of the white men would react adversely to a black superior. They would not offer him a lesser job, for he was too well qualified.
Braithwaite left the building in a kind of stupor. For six years in the military his blackness had never mattered. Though he saw his black face daily, he had never noticed his color. Now his bitter resentment rose up and he hurried to the nearest bathroom to be sick. He called the other two companies and told them he was a Negro, and, if that did not affect their hiring decisions, he would be happy to keep his interview appointments. Both firms said their positions had already been filled. He went to the only safe place he knew to go: the Belmonts in Brentwood.
He was twenty-eight years old and had always believed in what he called the “British Way of Life.” The ideal had sustained him when he had to work harder and run faster than the white students in high school; it had inspired him when he was in college and university at a time when ideals were succumbing to disillusionment on all fronts. He came to England and felt as if he were “the hub of fairness, tolerance, and all the freedoms.” British holdings in the West Indies all claimed British loyalties, beliefs, and traditions, and the ties were strong. Braithwaite and his parents were British in every way, and he resisted all criticism of British policies—even when they were wrong. What happened in that interview was the equivalent of a betrayal of faith for Braithwaite.
To many in Britain, a Negro represented brute strength, menial employment, and “slum accommodation.” Though there was an occasional successful Negro in the arts or professional fields, they were seen as anomalies. He was willing to die for Britain and for democracy, the freedom to work at a profession for which he was qualified without regard to his racial or religious origins. A promise had been broken. In America, at least the racial hostility was open and blatant. Britons tended to point at America as an oppressor of Negroes, forgetting that America had offered more opportunities for betterment and advancement for Negroes than any other nation in the world, even those with indigenous Negro populations.
In Britain things were different. No one spoke their prejudice to him, and people generally believed it did not exist because a black man could ride on public transportation and sit where he chose as long as he had the fare to do so, even though it was likely no one would sit next to him. He could seek accommodations at any hotel or inn, and the courteous denial was never attributed to prejudice. Braithwaite felt a greater betrayal because it was conducted with charm and courtesy.
At that moment he had to reassess his future. His savings would, if he were careful, last him two years. He was certain he would, in that time, find an employer who would be more interested in his skills than his skin color.
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After being denied a job he was perfectly suited and qualified for because of his skin color, Braithwaite tried everything he knew to get a job and got the same result from all of them. He tried to advertise himself as a Negro, but no one wanted to hire him. When he did not mention his color, they all turned him down for essentially the same reason: “too black.” At one firm, he filled out his paperwork amidst men who were clearly not as well educated and qualified as he was; however, the interviewer told him he spoke too well and was too well educated to fit in at this firm. Braithwaite took his application out of the man’s hands and ripped it up in front of him.
For eighteen months he tried to get any job but had no success. He was turned down because he was too well qualified and too educated for the menial jobs and too black for anything better, and his hatred grew. He was about to run out of the ration coupons he received for clothing when he was demobilized, so his uncle graciously sent him several suits, ties, shirts, socks, and underwear over the course of several months. Braithwaite spent his coupons on several serviceable pairs of shoes.
As he struggled with the realities of prejudice, he found himself growing distrustful of every look and gesture, seeking some hidden animosity behind them. He grew unwilling to extend basic courtesies to women and the elderly and was even hostile toward small children who looked at him with innocent eyes because they had never seen a black man. Occasionally someone would say or do something extraordinarily kind or unselfish, keeping him from falling into an abyss of bitterness.
He was sitting beside the lake in St. James’s Park when an older man, thin and bespectacled, started talking about the habits and varieties of the ducks Braithwaite was feeding. Soon he spoke directly to Braithwaite, asking how long he has been in London. The younger man was not inclined to answer, but that did not deter the man from talking. He commented that a big city is a lonely place to live, though it is not really the city’s fault; it is simply too big to be concerned about something as small as one person’s happiness. Braithwaite had been hoping the old man would just quit talking, but soon he began to see him more as an aesthete and scholar who was merely offering him kindness and friendliness.
The old man compared the city to a battlefield, and each person in it has to become a fighter if he wants to do more than just survive in it. Fighting the good fight is what will allow one to see the fun and exciting opportunities a big city has to offer. Braithwaite was in no mood for such philosophizing and told the man if he were a Negro he would undoubtedly find more excitement than he could bear. After giving him a long look, the man laughed—a rich, infectious laugh. Though he fails to see the humor, Braithwaite laughed with him. Soon Braithwaite told him everything, and the man suggested he become a teacher.
Braithwaite believed it was unreasonable to think that people would not allow him near equipment that he understood very well but would entrust the education of their children to him. The old man assured him there was a desperate need for teachers, especially in London’s East End. The younger man bristled at the implication that he was only good enough to teach the lowly and impoverished; however, the old man gently scolded him for being as much of a snob as others had been to him, dismissing the needs of the less advantaged.
They spoke easily for several hours, without even exchanging names. It was a conversation for which Braithwaite would always be thankful, as it led directly to his approval as a teacher and an appointment from the Divisional Office. From there he was sent to Greenslade School.
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Braithwaite arrives early for his first day of classes at Greenslade School. The Belmonts, whom he calls “Dad” and “Mom,” are as thrilled as he is about this opportunity. As he approaches the courtyard, he hears students using foul language and wonders if they will speak in such a way in his classroom. Mrs. Drew greets him in the staffroom and he asks her about it. She tells him students often try the words for effect but few of them even understand the actual words they are speaking. As he leaves the lounge, his colleagues give him encouragement to begin his first day.
He sits at his desk and waits for all his students to assemble and become quiet before he takes roll and collects their dinner money. Before they are called to their daily assembly, Braithwaite looks at the forty-six seats and forty-two students. Twenty-six of them are girls, young women, really, who appear rather “gypsyish” in their cheap, flashy jewelry. The boys are “scruffier, coarser, dirtier,” and all are in the jeans, t-shirts, and haircuts of their movie idols.
The assembly is not religious, though the headmaster does invoke a blessing on each student for the day. Jews, Muslims, Catholics, and Protestants are all represented here. Florian reads a poem and two classical musical selections are played; Braithwaite is surprised to see every student’s attention on the music, and not just because they were required to be in attendance. It offers him some hope for their ability to appreciate more than pop culture. Back in the classroom, Braithwaite introduces himself and says he would like each of them to read aloud from whichever one of their books they choose. The results are dismal.
Few of them can do more than stumble through a few sentences. In the back of the room, while others are reading, one boy is doing something to make everyone around him laugh. As the reading continues, Braithwaite discovers the boy is inflating a nude doll with air, lewdly distending her breasts and abdomen as if she were pregnant. When Braithwaite asks if anyone else would like to read for him, the girl with the red hair who ran into him in the hallway and asked him to dance volunteers. Unlike most of the class, she is clean and neat, and she reads well. Her name is Pamela Dare, and no one else wants to read after she finishes.
Braithwaite talks to them about reading being the basis of all other learning, and they listen attentively until it is time for their mid-morning milk break. While they are outside and Braithwaite is contemplating his next lesson, Miss Vivienne Clintridge (everyone calls her “Clinty”) brings him a cup of tea and asks how his morning went. He tells her about the boy with the doll, telling her he simply asked the boy to put it away. She hesitates for a moment and then tells him they all agree generally with the headmaster, but it is much easier to overlook trouble from inside an office. She tells the new teacher that most of these kids come from homes in which violence from parents or older siblings is the only language spoken when an order or command is not obeyed.
On the other hand, she warns Ricky (for they are now on a first-name basis) that giving them too much leeway would be dangerous, so it is important to maintain order and discipline—and he should never touch any of the girls or they will cry foul on him. When his students return from their break, Braithwaite tries to assess their math skills by asking if any of them know the table of weights used in grocery stores and the like. One smart aleck, Denhem, lists all the boxing weights and everyone in the class laughs at his joke—everyone but the teacher, who uses sarcasm to quiet the room quickly. Braithwaite asks if anyone else knows the table of weights. Tich Jackson, the boy who was smoking but directed Braithwaite to the headmaster’s door when he arrived, offers the correct answer. Braithwaite feels “rather pleased by this gesture of cooperation.”
When Denhem and a girl in class try to get more laughs from the group, Braithwaite’s sarcasm becomes scathing as he tells them they seem to find everything amusing—including the fact that most of them cannot read their own language and do not know the rudiments of weights and measures. Since they are so easily amused, he is anticipating some very good times this year. Their laughter has turned to anger, which is what he wanted, and now they listen to him talk about the background and history of measurement and how it affects their lives today. They listen attentively until the dinner bell rings.
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Yesterday’s dinner was an altogether too noisy affair, so Braithwaite does not join the rest of the school for the noon meal but eats in the peaceful staff room. His mom had sent him a lunch, and he realizes that teaching is much more draining than he had imagined it to be. Soon Miss Blanchard joins him; she has her own lunch because she does not like the food. The two of them have much in common: books, music, theater, and films. She noticed his surprise that morning when the children listened so raptly to the classical music; both of them are amazed.
As the others make their way to the lounge after dinner, they each ask Braithwaite how his morning went. A few are amused that he seems to have taken Miss Clintridge’s advice. Mrs. Dawes reminds them all that these students are not as bad as some would suggest. Weston only wants obedience and he gets it, but it appears he derives little joy from the process. Braithwaite feels the little man delights in being irritating, yet he always makes his comments with a smile on his face. He understands his recent experiences may have made him extra sensitive to any comments about race, so the newcomer decides simply not to listen to Weston any more.
As the conversation continues, it becomes clear that nearly all of his colleagues want him to succeed, and he appreciates their support. The afternoon is less satisfactory than the morning. While the children are not disobedient, laughing, or chatting, they are also not cooperating with him. They do what they are told, but there is no energy or excitement in the doing. His remarks made a negative impression on them; their “silent watchfulness” is making a negative impression on him.
There are a few exceptions. Tich Jackson is friendly and, even though he joined in the laughing, he smiles at Braithwaite in a sincere way. Patrick Fernman is an intelligent boy who shows no resentment; and Lawrence Seales, a dark-skinned boy of obviously mixed parentage, shows no resentment but also shows no indication of friendliness toward his classmates or his teacher.
Braithwaite stops in a tobacconist’s shop on his way home and sees a board with postings for goods and accommodations available. He stops to look, knowing the long trip to Brentwood will seem interminable in the wet and wintry months. He considers getting a place to live closer to the school. When the proprietor offers to wait on him, Braithwaite tells him he is a teacher at Greenslade School. The man contemplates him for a moment then tells him none of these postings is good enough for a teacher; if he will stop again, he will have something better to tell him about. This sign of deference and respect is shocking to Braithwaite, and he is moved by this stranger’s kindness.
At home that night, he discusses his day with the Belmonts, and they all agree he must do something to gain his students’ confidence and respect before their resentment has a chance to harden into something ugly and impenetrable or an incident occurs which will negate any possibility of a good relationship with them.
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Every Friday morning before recess, everyone in the school writes a Weekly Review. Students write about their week in any form they choose; they may criticize, agree, or disagree, as long as they are writing about school. No one is exempt from criticism, including the headmaster, and there are no repercussions from anything that is written. The Weekly Review is one of the Old Man’s inviolable schemes. It benefits the students, because if something matters enough to them they will put it on paper as meticulously and correctly as possible. Teachers are able to see which of their lessons were effective and which were not. Florian’s theory is that the children are generally fair in their assessments, and a “sensible teacher” will take what he reads and make adjustments.
On his first Friday at Greenslade School, Braithwaite is anxious to learn what his students really think of him. He was disappointed to read so little about himself. Students noted the existence of a new “blackie” teacher, but their biggest commentary concerned their dance sessions and one of their classmate’s success on the local boxing club team. Braithwaite assumes they are expecting him to leave like Hackman, but if he made that minimal an impression on them, he assumes it is his failing.
After that, Braithwaite works very diligently at being a good teacher but continually feels unsuccessful. He reads books on the psychology of teaching, but they are not helpful. He feels as if he is trying to teach through a thick pane of glass which separates him from his class.
In retrospect, he realizes he passed through three stages in his relationship with his students. First, they gave him the “silent treatment,” doing what he asked and staring at him watchfully when they were not working. He did everything he knew to make their lessons engaging and applicable to their lives, but he was still disconnected.
The second phase was more annoying: the “noisy treatment.” Though not everyone joined in, even the non-participants were sympathetic to the noisemakers. When Braithwaite was reading, one or two students would bang their desk lids down and then look at him with feigned innocence for the accidental interruption. Generally he would end his lesson early and assign written work, as they could not make such noises while they were writing. He knew this was not effective teaching, and he tried not to get angry that they were missing out on lessons which were prepared solely for their benefit. Braithwaite wanted to give Weston no opportunity to gloat over his failures, so he kept trying.
Finally, one morning the use of foul language began. At recess that day, students congratulated the first offender for putting the teacher in his place. After this, things grew slightly worse than before, and students became vicious as they chose pointless battles to fight. Braithwaite saw other adult behaviors during this time, with much fondling and kissing happening in dark hallways or the farthest corner of the playground. Students would stop when he walked by, but as soon as he passed they would resume their activities, which clearly had “adult intentness.” Braithwaite tried to convince himself his only concern was what happened in his classroom, but he knew it was not true.
The younger children began to mimic the older ones. One day a small boy crashed through the glass roof of the girls’ bathroom while trying to peek in; he was not seriously injured. Braithwaite found it discouraging that his colleagues were concerned about the repercussions of a serious injury but seemed relatively unconcerned about the underlying moral questions.
One afternoon during the recess period, Braithwaite returned to find a smoky classroom. A cluster of boys and girls were standing around the fireplace grate, joking and laughing and making no attempt to eliminate the source of the smoke. When he pushed through the crowd of students, he found a used sanitary napkin which someone had tried to burn. Horrified, angry, and disgusted, Braithwaite lost his temper. He sent the boys out of the room and told the girls he was sickened by their crude language, sluttish behavior, and their easy familiarity with boys.
They listened without a word of response. He told them this is disgusting behavior for young ladies and he would leave the room for five minutes while they removed the offending object and cleared the room of smoke. Braithwaite realized his students were trying to achieve a second victory by chasing him off, but he would not let them win this battle. When he reentered his classroom, everything was clean and smoke-free. He was surprised to find the girls were ashamed and the boys were waiting expectantly. Braithwaite would need a little time to make them see that the “game” has changed.
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The next morning Braithwaite has an idea on the way to school. Though it is not clearly formed, he is hopeful of its success. After assembly and once everyone is seated at their desks, he begins to talk to his class in an informal and pleasant way. He tells them his plans for the rest of the school year, deciding most of what he says as he speaks to them.
The first thing he tells them is that he expects them to listen attentively to everything he says without interrupting; once he is finished, they may ask him whatever questions they might have or say whatever they want to say to him without his interrupting. When he looks around the class, he sees even the least interested and engaged students are listening to what he is saying. Braithwaite tells them his job is to teach, and he promises to do so in as interesting a way as he knows how; if they do not agree or understand, he wants them to tell him so.
Braithwaite tells them that in a mere six months, they will be forced to embark on the journey of adulthood, so he means to start treating them as adults and expects they will treat each other as adults, as well. At that moment, Pamela Dare comes rushing breathlessly into the room, and Braithwaite calmly uses her as an example. He says there are two ways in which people may enter a room: one is to be controlled and dignified, the other is to act as if they have just received a kick in the rear end. He challenges Miss Dare to demonstrate the former. It is a short battle of wills, but Pamela goes out and reenters with the dignity of royalty. Braithwaite thanks her.
From this point on, all the female students will be addressed as “Miss,” the boys will be addressed by their surnames, and the teacher will be addressed as “Mr. Braithwaite” or “Sir.” The boys immediately demur, saying they know the girls and see no need to address them so formally. Braithwaite asks if there are any of the female students who are not deserving of the title, and of course the answer is no. Braithwaite tells them this is the kind of behavior which will be expected of them in the business world, so it is best for them to begin the practice now.
Next, Braithwaite discusses the general deportment and conduct of the class. He tells the girls that they must act in a manner worthy and appreciative of such courtesies, and he tells them there are several specific areas which Mrs. Dale-Evans will be discussing with them in their Domestic Science class today. (Again this is impromptu speaking, but he is sure his colleague will be glad to help.) The boys, he says, must begin to look cleaner. “A man who is strong and tough never needs to show it in his clothes or the way he cuts his hair.” Several years from now, as they begin to think seriously of women to marry, they will be more attractive with clean hands and faces.
Between each of these points, Braithwaite gives them time to digest what he is saying before he moves to the next topic of discussion. They are the top class, he reminds them, and they set the standards for everything that is done for every other class in the school. Younger students will emulate them, so it is important that they represent the “top” in every area of their conduct. Braithwaite assures them he will help in every way he can, and he tells them they have the potential to be the finest class in Greenslade School history.
One of the boys asks about the untidiness of Mr. Weston, and Braithwaite reminds them he is their teacher and they are free to criticize him if he does not maintain the same standards he sets for them. He then allows the students to quietly discuss what they have heard until it is time for recess; then he talks to Mrs. Dale-Evans about his promise to the girls. She agrees to help. Braithwaite spends the afternoon teaching in a way that models correctness and deference without being condescending.
Several students have moved into positions of authority within the class, and Braithwaite knows he must win them fully in order to achieve success. Denham and Potter are the male leaders; Moira Joseph is the female leader, though Pamela Dare is the brightest and cleanest student in class. As he and Miss Blanchard walk to the bus, Braithwaite explains his strategy. He is pleased at the concern in her eyes and now is even more determined to succeed.
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That Friday, Braithwaite’s students are writing their Weekly Reviews with “absorbed application.” The only words anyone speaks are a request for the spelling of “Braithwaite.” When he reads them during recess, Braithwaite feels the students were fair, but barely. They are not happy with some things, but all are glad to be treated as adults; however, not one of them mentioned the behavior leading up to the changes. They most appreciate that he speaks to them as if they are capable of learning. He takes their writing home with him to discuss with his Mom and Dad.
His parents, too, are pleased with the progress he has made; however, his father warns him not to bring his schoolwork home with him or he will be stuck in a very shallow world. Teaching is like a bank account, and one can only draw from it what one deposits in the form of life experiences and new thoughts and discoveries. Braithwaite’s father encourages him to find a girl, though his mother assures him there will be plenty of time for that. Braithwaite takes his father’s advice, and he never again brings work home to be corrected. Instead, he walks around the room and corrects errors while they are in progress, a much more effective way to teach.
The students are getting better each day. Their forms of address as well as their hygiene are improving, and sometimes the bell rings at the end of the day and they are still conducting an interesting discussion. Braithwaite strives with each lesson to help each student develop thinking and reasoning skills, useful tools for a life adulthood. Some students ask him questions about himself but others remain watchful and even hostile, looking for every opportunity to deflate their teacher when they can. Braithwaite strives not to notice such small things, preferring to concentrate on the cooperation of the majority.
Some days are not easy, though. One geography lesson deals with clothing for people who live in various climates, and Tich Jackson asks about the magazines he has seen in which black women are dancing without “any clothes on at the top.” Unfazed, Braithwaite talks about various cultures who wear little or no clothing, or perhaps just fur for utilitarian purposes. The discussion moves to the history of clothing in Britain, and Braithwaite suggests they visit the exhibits at the Victoria and Albert Museum if they want to see more. One of the girls asks if he can take the class to the museum.
Such a thought had never occurred to Braithwaite, but he says that if enough of the class was interested, he will talk to the headmaster. Most of the class says they would like to go. In the back of the room, though, a small group of boys is gathered around Denham’s open desk. Inside he has a page from a magazine which depicts a curvaceous woman in a skimpy bikini. Braithwaite takes the “disgusting thing” and tears it to shreds before throwing the pieces in the wastebasket and continuing with his lesson as if the incident had never occurred.
The class is nervous, for they are aware (as is their teacher) that Denham wanted a fight in order to upset the class—and they all know he will have one sometime soon.
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On Thursday there is a sense of excitement, and both Braithwaite and his students can feel it. In the afternoon, the boys go to their physical education class and Braithwaite asks them to line up for their activity. Denham steps forward and asks if the class can have boxing first today. Braithwaite agrees and the boys pair off by size. Denham’s partner is conveniently unable to participate, so he asks Braithwaite to spar with him. This is the moment Denhem has been preparing for since last week.
After initially telling Denham no, Braithwaite discerns that the other boys see this as a sign of cowardice and decides to spar with Denham. Everyone else lines the wall and prepares to watch. It soon becomes clear that Denham’s reputation as a boxer is well earned, and Braithwaite does his best to hold the boy at bay until he can reasonably stop the fight after having been foolishly goaded into it.
A few boys are cheering for their teacher from the sidelines; the rest do not say anything. Suddenly the boy hits Braithwaite hard in the face, and the older man reacts by punching Denham hard in the solar plexus. The boy is doubled up on the floor, and there is a moment of stunned silence before the boys come rushing to their fallen classmate. Braithwaite tells them all to line up in preparation for vaulting, and surprisingly they all do so without complaint or murmur while he ensures that Denham is fine. The rest of the boys obey with alacrity for the rest of the period, acting as if their teacher had suddenly matured into a man before their eyes.
After class, Braithwaite assures Denham it was a lucky punch and tells him to go clear his head. In a shaky voice but without hesitation, Denham says, “Yes, Sir” before going to the washroom. This is the turning point in Braithwaite’s relationship with his class. Though he still offers consistent comments and wisecracks, Denham no longer poses a threat as an enemy of his teacher. Braithwaite’s attitude toward his students also changes. While before he tried to do his best for the sake of his job, he is now concerned about each one of them and finds himself liking them individually rather than collectively.
During recess periods, students often stay in and talk with Braithwaite about their families and their concerns about things like money and basic needs such as food and clothing. In turn, Braithwaite tries to apply every lesson in every subject to their real lives and experiences. Occasionally Headmaster Florian joins their discussions. He expresses his approval of the job his newest teacher is doing, and Braithwaite takes the opportunity to ask about taking his class on a field trip to the Albert and Victoria Museum.
The headmaster is reluctant to let them go, feeling the students’ behavior is likely to be disruptive and unruly. Finally he agrees to let Braithwaite take his class if he can find one other teacher to go with him. He asks Miss Blanchard (Gillian) to go with him, and she readily agrees. The rest of the staff is dubious and share their doubts openly. When one of the boys comes to the staff room and tells Weston that Miss Dare would like to know if the girls’ netball is repaired, the teacher does not even know who the boy is talking about and the boy has to explain that he means Pamela Dare. Weston is sarcastically amazed to hear such a formality from a student and rather mocks Braithwaite for teaching his class manners.
When Weston asks if all the rest of the teachers need to start addressing students so formally as well, Braithwaite explains that each teacher is free to do what he or she wishes, but he and his class have come to an agreement regarding “certain courtesies.” This begins a conversation in which Weston is characteristically sarcastic and critical, and Braithwaite is surprised to hear the women in the room come to his defense. Weston makes sexist and racist comments, and it is clear the women are tired of their negative, prejudiced colleague. But Braithwaite thinks that what happens in the staff lounge does not really matter; the only thing that matters is the children.
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After recess, Braithwaite tells his students about their field trip to the Albert and Victoria museum next Thursday. They are ecstatic at the prospect of an outing but dubious about the presence of Miss Blanchard, their second chaperone. Thursday morning Braithwaite gets the travel voucher and comes to class after all of his students have arrived. He is stunned at what he sees. Each student is clean and tidy and dressed to make a good impression; they are thrilled at Braithwaite’s “delighted surprise.”
The trip on the subway is full of lively chatter until two women board the train and show their disdain for “shameless young girls and these black men.” Their remarks are meant to be overheard, and they are. Pamela Dare turns to the women and tells them Braithwaite is their teacher; the women are embarrassed and ashamed. At the museum, students work in groups, and it is clear to Braithwaite that they have done some preparatory work before coming to the museum. Even when they meet for tea, their discussions center on what they have seen and how what they saw impacts their lives today.
Braithwaite is proud of his class, for they conducted themselves in a manner befitting any class from any school. Denham and Potter act as marshals, ensuring every group is ready to leave when it is time to go. It is clear that the class now respects their teacher, and everything he says is taken as absolute authority. Gillian tells him she had a wonderful time and enjoyed talking to the girls in his class, though they seem to know more about life in many respects than she does. Gillian does note that Pamela Dare has a crush on Braithwaite, a thought which stuns him. He assures Gilliam he has never treated the girl differently than any of the others, and Gillian just laughs and says she is certain that is true—but it will not deter the feelings of a teenage girl.
When Gillian says she does not blame the girl, for he is “rather overpowering,” Braithwaite is in a state of confusion. He admires Gillian and wants to maintain their friendship, though she makes him feel “at once excited, delighted, and sobered.” The atmosphere between them has changed, and he walks quickly out of the room. Though he has had had several affairs in his life, Braithwaite has never been serious with any woman. Before, his color did not seem to matter; in fact, it had probably worked in his favor. Now, In England, a white woman with a black man is made to feel as if she were humiliating all womankind; it is simply not accepted.
Gillian follows Braithwaite to his room and asks if he is upset by their conversation, and their short dialogue leads to a tacit understanding of unexpressed feelings between them. He is ecstatic at this new and unexpected development. The next day the train is a bit late, making him a bit late to class. He is stunned to hear his class greet him in unison; he is equally stunned to see a bouquet of bedraggled flowers—obviously gathered from the back yards of many class members—waiting for him on his desk. He is moved, and he thanks his smiling students with a full heart.
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The students' Weekly Reviews are full of commentary on their trip to the Victoria and Albert Museum. Headmaster Florian reads their writing and is so impressed with the outcome that he has volunteered to help with any other ventures. It has been two months since Braithwaite began teaching, and each day the lessons are becoming more interesting. There is so much his students do not know that Braithwaite has plenty of material to cover before the school year is over. The lessons are informal and involve much class discussion.
A lesson with an unused skeleton from the Science Room reveals that his students know more than perhaps they should about reproduction and the human body. During a geography lesson, students wonder if he is from Africa. He tries to explain that he was born in British Guiana, but they understand little about Colonial territories, protectorates, and dependencies. They know the products produced in these places, but they have little interest in the people who produce them and care even less about their political struggles or their quest for economic improvement.
Even his colleagues understand little about black cultures, assuming all Negroes are caricatures (depicted in film) of indolence and shiftlessness, living in mud huts or shanties, smiling, singing, and dancing to face all their problems in life. Both students and teachers learned such stereotypes from their textbooks. When Braithwaite points to himself as a Negro who is not as depicted, they simply say he is different than the rest. He is making progress, and it is rewarding to help his eager students learn.
One evening on his way home, Braithwaite sees the old tobacconist who beckons him into the shop. He introduces Braithwaite to his mother as the new teacher at Greenslade School. She embraces him and gives him the address of a room she thinks might be good enough for him. He goes immediately, as the unreliability of the train has become a bit of a problem. The smiling woman on the other side of the door immediately loses her smile when she sees him. Clearly it is his color that causes her change of demeanor, but before she can close the door on him, Barbara Pegg, one of his students, peers from behind the door and tells her mother Braithwaite is her teacher. It changes nothing, however, and he determines to quit looking for an apartment. Barbara is embarrassed long after the incident.
Braithwaite and Gillian begin dating, and they enjoy one another’s company at the theater, ballet, films, and dinner. Her parents are rich and successful, and she quit her more lucrative job to do something more satisfying. She has her own apartment in Chelsea.
After school one evening, Barbara’s mother comes to offer him the apartment, as Barbara is upset with her for denying him the room. She has not changed her feelings toward Negroes, but she wants her daughter to be happy. Braithwaite assures the woman he will tell Barbara he changed his mind and decided not to take the apartment. Mrs. Pegg is relieved. Braithwaite explains to the girl that he has decided to stay where he is, but if he ever changes his mind, he will contact her first. She is relieved, and Braithwaite feels that he has made a small change in at least one student’s attitude about race and prejudice.
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Braithwaite spends his August break reading or attending various shows and exhibitions. Gillian is vacationing with her mother but sends him several letters. They are anxious to see one another again. When classes resume, many of his students are not there. They are on a “working holiday” in the country, working in the hop-fields in Kent. The class is lacking its usual energy. Pamela in particular seems to be disinterested, perhaps because her friend Barbara is not in class yet.
Soon everyone returns and “much of the old spirit was soon re-established,” just as Braithwaite had hoped. Students chatter about the fun they had while away and their plans to spend the money they earned. Despite the enthusiasm of the group, Pamela remains aloof and quiet. During recess breaks, she tidies the classroom and quietly does small things, unasked, for her teacher. All students gather around him regularly, asking more about him and telling him more about their families. Many mornings he finds a treat on his desk from some occasion the night before, and during the break he eats it with his tea as the student tells him all about the wedding or special event which happened the night before. Braithwaite is part of their lives, and they want to share everything with “Sir.”
Always at the edge of the crowd is Pamela, who remains observant but silent. She seems to have become more womanly, her hair now in an attractive style rather than a schoolgirl’s ponytail. Braithwaite senses he could help her if she would confide in him, but she does not. He plans to wait until she chooses to share her problem with him. One day the boys bring Braithwaite a football to fill with air and to lace, and one of the steel laces slips and pokes his finger. When he bleeds a bit, one of the boys jokingly shows surprise that the black man’s blood is red. Pamela, hovering near the group as usual, attacks the offender for his offensive remark.
The attack is vicious and aimed at all of them. She says they are stupid for always asking questions that show their ignorance, like whether Braithwaite feels the cold or bathes or gets a haircut. These are idiotic questions about things that do not matter and are insulting to their teacher. The boys are stunned at the vitriol with which she attacks them. They tell her that their teacher does not need her to defend him, but she does not back down from her position. Braithwaite sees that her scathing remarks confound the boys; she is “wonderful, tremendous in her scorn and towering anger.”
As the boys escape the room, Denham is struck by a sudden thought and tells her she is only defending their teacher because she is “stuck on” him. He rushes out of the room before he can see her reaction, but Braithwaite sees Pamela blush deeply as she looks at him and rushes out of the room. He believes that what Denham said is the truth.
Braithwaite sees his students as children and he feels only fatherly affection for them, but he can see that this situation might prove to be a problem for him and his class. He talks to Grace, and she explains that this kind of thing is typical among students of all ages. At Greenslade, male teachers have not been worthy role models and mentors for many years. Braithwaite dresses well and treats his students with courtesy, dignity, and respect; he is someone they can admire and emulate, she tells him. It is not surprising that a young woman would respond in such a way, as he is so different from the other men in her life. She tells him to be “tactful” and Pamela will soon “pull herself together.” Braithwaite appreciates Grace’s counsel.
Pamela’s emotional outburst seems to have released some of her tension, and she is once again joining her classmates in their conversations and activities. Braithwaite notices an occasional worried look on the girl’s face, but he hopes it will soon fade into normalcy. Headmaster Florian joins their class often now, inciting discussion and argument in an attempt to help the students think, reason, and analyze. Their responses are thoughtful and insightful (though not always grammatically correct), a testament to the Old Man’s philosophy of education. These students who could not gain admission into other schools are flourishing here and will be ready to “hold their own” in the adult world very soon.
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One October morning, Braithwaite is called to Florian’s office and told that one of his students, Patrick Fernman, has been arrested for wounding another Greenslade student with a knife during a scuffle. Braithwaite must prepare a report regarding Fernman’s attendance, conduct, abilities, and interests. The magistrates, he explains, already feel as if this school is too lenient on bad behavior, and this incident will solidify their beliefs. Braithwaite offers to go visit Fernman’s parents, and the Old Man gives him a note to take to them.
The class has been silent regarding their missing classmate, though Braithwaite is certain they all know about his trouble. He prepares the report and emphasizes the boy’s positive attributes, feeling justified especially since the wounded boy is a known bully. Gillian goes with Braithwaite to the boy’s home, and Mrs. Fernman has clearly spent much time weeping. As other adults are introduced to them, they, too, show signs of great sorrow. They are grateful for the kind letter from Florian and tell the teachers what happened.
The knife is a family heirloom, and Patrick had unwisely shown it, in its velvet case, to the other boy who immediately grabbed for it. In an attempt to keep the knife, the other boy was cut and Patrick’s hand was sliced quite badly. After getting the wound dressed, Patrick’s father took him to the police; the other boy had meanwhile been taken to the hospital. Braithwaite assures them he will do all he can to help their son, and Gillian is warmly comforting to them in their grief, even speaking Yiddish with the family. Braithwaite is glad she came with him.
The court hearing is on the following Monday, and Braithwaite attends. The room is full of young miscreants accused of everything from non-attendance to sexual misconduct, and most of them have brash and arrogant demeanors. In contrast, Fernman is standing abjectly with his parents and grandmother. The first case is that of a fourteen-year-old girl who has had “carnal knowledge” with several boys from her apartment building and is now pregnant. Her aunt is no longer willing to deal with her, so she is being sent to a home for young, unwed mothers. The girl remains impassive throughout the proceedings.
Braithwaite thinks about this girl, whose positive school report sounded much like that of many of his own female students, and realizes how little he knows about what happens to them outside of his classroom. Many of them are forced by their circumstances to work adult jobs to help support their families, and he recognizes how easily they could assume other adult behaviors because of their forced maturity. Braithwaite has only spoken objectively of sexual matters in the “absurd hope” that he will not offend or his remarks will not be misconstrued. Now he understands the ridiculousness of such thinking.
After several other cases, Fernman must face the judge. He is ashamed as he shuffles to the front of the room, his arm in a sling. After listening to the school report, the judge asks if the boy has ever been in trouble before. He has not, though the victim was in court just last month for burning his mother with a hot fireplace poker. The judge is serious and severe as he tells Fernman how dangerous a knife can be and how close he came to being a murderer. He understands the boy was sent on a simple errand to have the knife sharpened, but when fear and aggression are involved, awful things can happen.
The judge then turns the full force of his judicial voice on Greenslade and its too-lenient practices—though he does not actually name the school. It is the school which gives its students license to do evil and fosters in them a disregard for social institutions. The “ill-conceived schemes” of the “cranks and dreamers” who run the school are responsible for these kinds of behaviors. Finally, the judge tells the boy that his contrition is evident and likely punishment enough; however, for his own good he must see a probation officer once a week for the next year.
The family leaves the courtroom, greatly relieved, and Braithwaite spares them the embarrassment of talking to him after such a humiliating ordeal. While he in no way agrees with the judge’s assessment of Greenslade, Braithwaite now feels an even greater responsibility for the students in his care for six hours each day.
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Fernman comes back to school subdued but is soon part of the class activities and discussions. On several evenings, Braithwaite takes his class to see an opera, a play, and the Harlem Globetrotters. Braithwaite taught them the context and particulars of the play and opera before they went; afterwards, on the bus ride home, students discuss their experiences with insight and intelligence, something Braithwaite wishes the school’s detractors could hear. After the Globetrotters game, students are amazed to discover that many of the black players are college graduates. The students are beginning to expand their vision of the American Negro.
One morning the headmaster tells Braithwaite he has someone who would like to see him. When he walks into the office, Braithwaite finds a statuesque woman with auburn hair and immediately knows her to be Pamela Dare’s mother. The woman is distraught that her daughter has been staying out late and will not tell her where she has been. Mrs. Dare is confident Pamela will listen to Braithwaite, as she talks about him all the time at home and obviously admires him. When Braithwaite says her father should be the one who talks to her, Mrs. Dare tells him her husband died while serving in the Air Force when Pamela was eight and recalls that Braithwaite was also in the Air Force. He agrees to talk to Pamela.
He asks Pamela to meet with him for a few moments after school and she agrees, knowing her mother came to school out of concern. In the teacher’s lounge, Braithwaite and Gillian talk about their commitment to the children. Gillian believes Braithwaite is the more dedicated one. Weston, as always, is negative and assumes the worst every time parents (”these people”) come to school. Gillian warns Braithwaite not to treat Pamela like a child, for she is nearly a grown woman.
At their meeting, Pamela tells Braithwaite she has been spending time with her grandmother just around the corner from her house. Pamela does not think her mother cares about her as much as she does her reputation with her friends. When Braithwaite asks if she is in some kind of trouble, he can see that there is something bothering her. However, he does not want to pry too deeply or interfere in her personal life. She explains that other students gossip about her, and soon she tells him that after her father’s death, she and her mother were the best of friends. Everything changed between them after a recent holiday when her mother had begun to see other men. Pamela asks him to come speak with her mother, and Braithwaite agrees to do so, though Gillian wonders if it is a wise move. He assures her he thinks he can help and will be careful. She tells him he could teach at a much better school, but he is unwilling to consider the possibility. He realizes he has experienced some success here but has no idea if that could be replicated in another environment.
When he arrives, Mrs. Dare asks Pamela to leave the room and explains that her daughter came home unexpectedly one night during the holidays and found her in bed with a man. Nothing has been the same between them since then. Her biggest fear is that her nearly-grown daughter will find herself in serious adult trouble. Braithwaite is now sure he overestimated his ability to help and should not have come.
To get the meeting over with as quickly as possible, he speaks to Pamela in an impersonal tone, telling her he knows why she must be upset but he can see no reason for her to upset her mother by staying out so late. Both of the adults fear what could happen to her out on the streets so late at night. He tells Pamela that he expects her to treat her mother with the same respect and courtesy she has for him at school. The girl is contrite and respectful, agreeing to let her mother know where she is and to come home earlier.
Braithwaite knows this meeting had the potential to cause great scandal and is relieved to escape to the bus and his home without being seen by any of his students or their parents.
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November 15 is an important day at Greenslade School, as it is the day of the twice-a-year Students’ Council report. The older students are organizing the events and have been preparing diligently. At 10:00, students are dismissed to an assembly at which Headmaster Florian praises students for their achievements but reminds them there is still much to be accomplished. As he listens, Braithwaite knows Florian is deeply committed to this cause and these children.
When Florian is finished speaking, the two oldest students in the school (Denham and Miss Joseph) take over the proceedings. Each class will have its representatives report on the year thus far, and then a panel of teachers—chosen by the students—will take the stage and be asked questions by the student body about the activities for their classes. The class reports begin with the youngest students and move to the oldest; they all report on what they have actually learned rather than what they were expected to have learned.
When it is time for Braithwaite’s class to report, Denham calls each representative by name and the topic on which they will speak. Braithwaite is proud that Denham addresses each young woman as “Miss” and hopes that will set a tone for the rest of the students to emulate. Miss Joseph reports that their studies in every subject have focused on the interdependence of mankind. Potter tells of leaning about the two systems of measurements, one or the other of which is used in every country in the world. Sapiano explains their studies of pests around the world and how shared knowledge between countries is beginning to reduce the threat of harmful insects and bugs. Jackson and Miss Pegg talk about their geography studies. They learned that every country is interdependent on other countries because of their natural resources; they also discussed the many post-war needs around the world and organizations such as U.N.I.C.E.F. which are trying to help on a worldwide basis.
Denham, with dramatic flair, brings in the science skeleton and explains that it is a provable fact that it is a female but no one could know its nationality or its color. This is part of their science studies. The students are mesmerized by his presentation. He finishes with a diatribe against the current physical education curriculum, claiming it is boring and a good game would serve the purpose just as well. It is a popular sentiment and the crowd cheers.
Three teachers’ names are then randomly drawn from the panel discussion. Most of the questions come from the older students, and Braithwaite enjoys watching the proceedings. Denham continues his tirade regarding the form of exercise that students are forced to do for physical activity. Weston is unable to deal effectively with the boy’s reasoning, so Miss Phillips steps in and adroitly uses his own arguments against him. If Denham is strong enough and does not need the exercise, he should be helping others. And if he does not like the activities, doing them anyway is good preparation for a lifetime of having to do things he must do but does not particularly enjoy doing. The headmaster finally draws the meeting to a close, expressing his pride and appreciation for their efforts.
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Thursday is Gillian’s birthday. Braithwaite bought her a book of poetry that he is planning to give to her during lunch on her birthday. On Tuesday, she comes to his classroom and asks to speak to him. As usual, he is surrounded by a group of students, and they whisper and giggle as he excuses himself to go see Gillian. She tells him she has made reservations for a special meal at an elegant restaurant to celebrate her birthday after they go to a movie. When he comes back into the room, his students are full of questions and speculations. Pamela is the only one who remains aloof from the conversation.
On Thursday, the couple leaves the school together. Gillian looks beautiful, and Braithwaite is proud to have her on his arm. They take the bus to see their movie, and they get on another bus to get to the fancy restaurant. They are met by the maître d' who, after a questioning glance at Braithwaite, shows them to their table. The couple is lost in their strong feelings which remain unexpressed as yet. Soon they begin to notice that the tables around them have waiters hovering over them, but not a single waiter has approached their table.
Finally a waiter comes, hands them a menu, and then quickly leaves. Later, he returns to take their order but is implicitly discourteous. Both diners are annoyed but say nothing until the waiter returns with their soup and spills some on Braithwaite—and simply sneers at him after doing so. Gillian is outraged and they leave the restaurant. Outside, she asks Braithwaite to take her home. In the taxi, Gillian sits as far away from Braithwaite as possible. He wonders if she blames the waiter’s discourtesy on him.
When they arrive at her house, she bolts out of the cab and walks up the steps to her front door. He expects her to disappear inside, but she turns to ask why he is not coming in with her. This Gillian is a stranger to him, but he cares for her too much and means to “see it through.” Her entire apartment is in harmony; the only discord in the room is between them. She walks out of the room, and he takes his gift for her out of his briefcase and places it on the table. Nothing about this evening is going as he had hoped.
When she returns, she opens the gift and begins to cry in despair, asking him why he just sat and took the abuse from the waiter. She is furious at him for not defending himself, reminding him of other times when he refused to defend himself while others championed him. Braithwaite is calm, assuring her that beating up the waiter would not have changed anything. He is tired of this familiar discussion, though he has never had it with Gillian before. She suddenly throws the book of poetry at him and then follows behind it, poised “like a demented creature” to strike him.
Braithwaite grabs her and holds her until her anger turns to moans as she cries against his coat. When he feels it is safe to release her, he simply watches her, knowing their relationship is finished. Finally she asks him what they are going to do, and he tells her he does not know. Incidents like this happen to Braithwaite occasionally, but Gillian had never experienced such blatant prejudice. She asks if this is how it will always be when they are together, and he explains that it would not have happened if she had not been with him. He loves her and does not want to say such things, but it is better that she know.
Soon Gillian tells him she loves him, and he tells her the same. He tells her his life story so she will understand how he came to be here and how he is “learning what it means to live with dignity in his black skin.” She is afraid, but she wants to be with him and has even talked to her parents about him. They will go visit them next weekend. Braithwaite is stunned at the unexpectedness of life, reflecting that he has not even kissed Gillian but that their course is now set. She is an innocent who is bravely linking her life to his, and they are both a little afraid. Others have faced this problem before and survived the challenge, and so will they.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 800
The touchstone for Braithwaite’s happiness is school. Here he has found an understanding of the young people in his charge as well as the neighborhoods in which they live. He is known in the markets and talked to with a mix of deference and familiarity by the mothers and relatives of his students. He is gaining a real affection for his students while continuing to model the behaviors he wants them to emulate. His early condemnation of their clothing and habits is now tempered with that understanding and affection, and their behavior and dress are reflecting the change.
A new teacher, Mr. Bell, is at the school for a short time to enhance instruction; one of the areas he assists with is physical education. He is a skilled fencer with little patience for imperfection. Some of the boys in class are dexterous enough to participate without difficulty, but Richard Buckley is unsuited in every way to such an endeavor. He is short, fat, and “rather dim,” making him a poor candidate for any physical activity; however, he reacts violently when others try to keep him from the embarrassment of trying. Buckley becomes Bell’s “special whipping boy.” Some of the boys write about it in their Weekly Reviews, and the headmaster decides to address the issue during a staff meeting.
When Florian mentions Bell’s personal, derisive attacks on the boys’ hygiene, Bell is defensive. Florian explains that even the simple act of bathing is difficult for many of these boys and asks Bell to temper his remarks with some understanding. Bell is furious at what he feels was a public rebuke and continues to abuse his students. One afternoon, matters get worse. Though Braithwaite was not there, he is able to piece together the events from the boys’ accounts and Bell’s admissions.
Bell goaded Buckley into doing an activity he was clearly unable to do. The boy hurt himself, and the boys rushed to help their classmate—all except Potter, who picked up a makeshift club and advanced on the teacher. One of the boys then ran to get Braithwaite, who was able to calm Potter down as Bell disappeared from the scene.
The boys are still incited to do something to Bell, but Braithwaite diffuses their anger by charging them with caring for Buckley. Braithwaite is unsure about Buckley’s potential injuries and knows he must therefore make a report to the headmaster. However, after the conversation in the staff meeting, he fears there is likely to be a row. When he finds Bell, Braithwaite hears the defensiveness in the man’s voice as he explains that he had to make Buckley do it or he would look ineffectual in front of his students. After Bell leaves to make his report to Florian, Clinty comes into the room and asks Braithwaite what happened. He tells her but leaves quickly to go talk to his boys. He feels as if Clinty wants to say something to him, but he does not want to hear it.
Upstairs, he tells the boys there is nothing which should have moved them to such violence, even their friend being taunted and hurt. When they try to tell Braithwaite he just did not understand what it felt like to see such unfair and unkind behavior, he tells them they are missing the point. They have been talking about many things in class, and in a few weeks each of them will have to begin applying those things in real life. Today they got angry and forgot everything they had been learning and immediately resorted to violence. In life, he tells them, many things will make them angry: responding with violence will get them nothing but trouble. If this incident is a predictor of their future behavior, Braithwaite says he has little hope for them.
Braithwaite tells Potter he thinks Bell deserves an apology from him, and several boys explode with the injustice of such an act, saying he had obviously never been treated so unjustly or he would understand. Suddenly, Braithwaite is visibly emotional and tells them he has been treated unfairly many times. At times he wanted to retaliate violently, but he knows that would not improve or change anything. The boys seem to sense his pain and only ask why the teacher should not apologize to them. He explains that he can only talk to them. Braithwaite asks Potter if he is satisfied with his behavior toward Bell. When he says no, Braithwaite suggests Potter find the man and deliver the apology.
Buckley is fine and soon Potter returns to class followed by Bell, who makes a mild apology of his own and says he will see them all again next class period. The class moves on to other things.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 802
Headmaster Florian obtained permission for a newspaper to come to Greenslade to take photos and write a story about the school. His hope is that this will be an opportunity for the positive things that are happening in the school to be published for the rest of the country to see. He tells his staff the day before the journalists arrive, and they all decide not to tell the students in advance so that their behavior will be more natural.
Soon after the visitors arrive, Braithwaite is called to the headmaster’s office and asked to be featured as a black teacher in the school. He gets defensive and asks the purpose of the story. When they tell him it will prove that in Britain there is no racial prejudice, Braithwaite refuses to be used for such propaganda. In his classroom, Florian conducts a discussion with Braithwaite’s students and they are stellar both in behavior and content.
A week later the article is published, and it is appalling. It is primarily a series of photos with captions, and the photos intentionally depict the staff and students of the school in the worst possible light. They have been tricked, and at a staff meeting after school the teachers are outraged at the distorted view of themselves, their school, and their students. Florian is equally distressed, telling them he was duped by the promise of objective reporting. Now all the maligners have photographic evidence to support their unsubstantiated claims against the school. Gillian reminds everyone that the editors chose the story that would sell, and most people would forget what they saw and read in a few days.
Early in December, Larry Seales comes to class late and explains he will be gone for a few days. His mother died unexpectedly and he is helping his father make the necessary arrangements. After delivering the news to Braithwaite, the boy collapses into tears, and the teacher relays his news to the class. After Seales leaves, they decide they will take up a collection to purchase a floral arrangement for the funeral. By the end of the week, they have gathered money to buy the tribute and make all the necessary decisions, but no one will deliver the flowers to the house. When pressed, the class finally admits it is because they cannot be seen going to a black person’s house.
Braithwaite feels “weak and useless,” knowing all their discussions have changed nothing. He feels like an alien among them still. None of what he said or taught or demonstrated matters to them; when his students look at people, they still see nothing but color first. What lies below the skin is lost to them. Seales is one of them and his mother was white; still they worry about what people would think if they are seen associating in any way with a colored person. He leaves the room.
His discouragement and despair are strong and he would like to share it with someone, but his colleagues are all white and he wonders what they could say to him now. Braithwaite tells the headmaster his story, and Florian says he is glad this happened. Though Braithwaite has made great strides with his students in the seven months he has had them, the prejudices run deep: it is unrealistic to expect things to change so quickly. The kindly man tells Braithwaite to go back to his classroom and show his students some of the same tolerance he expects of them.
Before going back into his room, Braithwaite realizes this is exactly the kind of thing he and Gillian will face on a constant basis, and he wonders if she is strong enough to withstand it. The classroom is quiet when he enters, and one of the girls tries to explain that their reluctance to deliver the flowers has nothing to do with their regard for their friend. They are simply afraid of the consequences. There is a quiet pause and then Pamela Dare stands and says she will deliver the flowers. She says she is not afraid of the gossip and she has known Larry since they started school. Braithwaite says he will see her at the funeral. He does not mention the issue to Gillian.
On the bus ride to the funeral, Braithwaite wallows in bitterness, knowing a murderer or worse would be accepted because he was white, but a black man would never be accepted. He is discouraged and disgusted with society and his students. As he approaches the Seales house, he is moved to tears when he sees nearly all of his class gathered for the funeral. He feels a small pressure in his hand. Pamela has slipped her tiny handkerchief into his palm, and he uses it to wipe his tears.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 507
The last days of the term are the happiest days for Braithwaite since he left the R.A.F. He and Gillian are growing closer, and they go to visit her parents. The Blanchards are reasonably affluent white people who raised their daughter to be independent and strong. Though they are not immediately comfortable with the man their daughter loves, they are pleasant and do not try to change Gillian’s mind. Most people are asked the hypothetical anti-prejudice question “Would you allow your daughter to marry a black man?” and do not really have to answer it. The Blanchards have to ask it and answer it, and Braithwaite feels sympathy for them.
They enjoy a pleasant enough lunch and ask about his current and future plans, but there is still no real connection between Braithwaite and Gillian’s parents. Afterwards, while they are smoking in the lounge in front of a fire, Mr. Blanchard mentions Aruba, a place Braithwaite knows well. They recall many things, but the one outrageous thing they both remember is the lines of men waiting to visit the state-sponsored prostitutes. The island was full of men from all over, coming to work at the oil refinery, and there were no accommodations for their wives. The men lived in barracks with community bathrooms, dining rooms, and other living spaces. Their one opportunity to escape, even for a short while, was to visit the prostitutes shipped over to the island every two weeks. Neither man ever visited the brothel, but both had seen the lines and it is their discussion of this shared experience that creates a connection between them.
Finally Gillian’s father talks plainly about his and his wife’s feelings about the relationship between Braithwaite and their daughter. He speaks clearly about their hopes that this relationship would fade, until Gillian brought him home to meet them. Now, he feels he must outline the dangers of such a marriage, knowing there will be difficult times ahead for them as a couple. He candidly explains that he would not have called himself a prejudiced man, but now he is forced to admit that he would prefer to break up this relationship if it were possible, knowing how difficult things might be for his daughter. And if the couple has children, there will certainly be problems, for they will not belong in either world.
Braithwaite is tired of these kinds of ridiculous arguments and reminds Mr. Blanchard that, years ago, Blanchard could not guarantee his wife that their children would be healthy and happy, either. If he and Gillian marry and have children, they will just have to take their chances, as the older couple had. Mr. Blanchard asks them to wait another six months to be sure of their feelings and to experience life together as a couple so they will understand the ramifications of such a venture. He then assures Braithwaite that both he and his wife like him and, if he will be joining the family, they will be friends.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 742
Near the end of the term, representatives from local industries come to Greenslade to recruit workers. Though many students take the proffered jobs, others have more ambitious plans and have already found more promising situations to begin their lives as adults. At first, all the students spoke eagerly of their plans to move on and have some money to spend, but as the time to leave approaches they grow more subdued and even frightened. Braithwaite knows, though, that they are frightened of jumping into the stream of adulthood but are not frightened of the stream itself. They use their last days in school to make sure everything gets said and asked and answered; in the last week there is not one absence.
Formal lessons are impossible in the excitement of these last days, so the class simply talks. Braithwaite is thrilled with many of the views they express about the relationships between people. Braithwaite reminds them that without barriers, people from all places can make their way to Britain, and these people of different races, religions, and color require nothing more from them than the common courtesies one would offer any stranger to their country.
Clinty comes into Braithwaite’s classroom one morning during recess, looking smug and announcing that Gillian will not be returning to Greenslade after next semester. Braithwaite is surprised but does not show it. Clinty said Gillian must be through “slumming,” since she told the Old Man that she could not commit to returning past the next term. Braithwaite notes Clinty’s obvious dislike for Gillian, which explains why she feels the need to tell him this news. He feels as if she came for some other reason but did not disclose it.
The Christmas party is a school-wide feast prepared by the senior girls in the Domestic Science Room with the assistance of the senior boys. The meal with the younger children goes well, but when the seniors serve the juniors Braithwaite is dismayed at what he sees. The younger students are wasteful, rude, and disrespectful. At six o’clock tonight the seniors have their party, so they leave to get dressed for the festivities. Braithwaite meets Pamela in the hallway and she asks if he will dance one dance with her tonight; he assures her he will, though “no jiving.” She promises to bring a special record for him and asks if he will call her Pamela instead of “Miss Dare” tonight. He will.
As the staff greets the students at the door, they are pleased with the transformations. All of them look their best, but the shining star of the evening is Pamela Dare. She looks sophisticated and dazzling, and Gillian exclaims that she is a beautiful girl. When Pamela comes to greet them, Gillian is struck with a bit of jealousy and takes Braithwaite’s hand, not caring who notices. It is a “very happy occasion,” and everyone is enjoying themselves.
Braithwaite dances with Gillian whenever he can, and when he dances a waltz with Clinty she remarks that he is “really gone” on Gillian. Braithwaite acts innocent and they both laugh. Pamela takes a record to Weston and soon “In the Still of the Night” is playing and Braithwaite is dancing with her. It is a lovely dance, and afterwards she asks if she can come see him sometime. He tells her she is welcome to visit whenever she is able.
The last day of school is full of good-natured teasing about the night before, and Braithwaite realizes that while some of these young people will be unexceptional, most will be productive members of society. One of the girls stands and offers a thank-you to Braithwaite on behalf of the group for his treating them as grown-ups, with respect and dignity, despite their behavior. The class erupts into applause, and Pamela rises with a package in her hands. She walks to the front of the room with great dignity, but after Braithwaite takes the package from her she quickly turns around and goes back to her seat. She is not quite adult in all ways yet.
Florian had slipped into the room when he heard the cheering, and now he and his newest teacher look at the label on the package: To Sir, With Love. Below it are the signatures of every student in the room. Florian looks at him and smiles, and Braithwaite looks over the headmaster’s shoulder at his students.
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