Chapters 1 and 2

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Last Updated March 22, 2024.

Chapter 1 

A red double-decker bus is crowded as it creeps through the morning traffic in Aldgate. 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 the only Black man. The women banter and make sexual innuendos, but he smiles at their teasing.

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. In his imaginings, it is a site full of history, but the reality is different. The streets are noisy, 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 the man 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 the man, 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.

Chapter 2

This school is, as Headmaster Florian said, 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 classroom 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 race. Braithwaite introduces himself, saying 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, Braithwaite 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 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 and 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, which gives him hope for his own successful classroom.

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Chapters 3 and 4