Chapters 3 and 4

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Last Updated March 25, 2024.

Chapter 3

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. 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, Florian explains, 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 lead 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 for the rest of the afternoon. Florian shakes his hand and tells his newest teacher that these are good children and, 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. 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 (Royal Air Force) in 1945.

Chapter 4

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 prove valuable as he sought 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 dressed as a professional, wearing 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 race had never mattered. Though he saw his face daily, he had never noticed his color. Now, 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 Black, 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 Black man represented brute strength, menial employment, and “slum accommodation.” Though there was an occasional successful Black man or woman 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, forgetting that America had offered more opportunities for betterment and advancement for its Black populace than any other nation in the world.

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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Chapters 1 and 2

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Chapters 5 and 6