Chapters 5 and 6

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Last Updated March 25, 2024.

Chapter 5

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 Black man, 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 selfless, keeping him from falling into an abyss of bitterness.

Braithwaite 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 Black man 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 failed 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.

Chapter 6

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 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. 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 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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Chapters 3 and 4

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Chapters 7 and 8