Chapters 19 and 20

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Last Updated March 26, 2024.

Chapter 19

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.

Chapter 20

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.

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Chapters 17 and 18


Chapters 21 and 22