“So long as we learn it doesn’t matter who teaches us, does it?”
Set in the post-world war II London, ‘To sir with love’ is a nonfiction account of a 28-year-old highly qualified man who stumbles upon teaching career because he is caught like an insect in the tweezer grip of prejudice and is denied jobs at all places by the virtue of being either “too qualified for lowly jobs and too black for anything better.” It follows the story of Braithwaite, who takes up the challenge of teaching a bunch of boisterous, rebellious 15 year olds. Unlike others, he treats them as adult rather than a bunch of immature teenagers and in turn expects them to behave correspondingly. Gradually, with perseverance he engages the class and wins them over and reforms the thoughts and actions of these rebellious students. The book is a beautiful door to the intricate nature of human behaviour and sensitive issues like racism, prejudice, teenage rebellion.
Relevance for the Indian Society
For me, the most intriguing part of the book is the parallels, its relevance in the Indian society today. There are so many instances which blazes of the prejudicial deeds in the Indian society, only that it is mentioned in a different context in the book. The most striking incidence is obviously how Braithwaite finds many occupational doors closed just because he is a black. It is a struggle against a prejudice cloaked in British poise and etiquette because nobody is openly and overtly racial. Similarly, even after 65 years of India’s independence and many ‘strict’ legislation, there is still division of labour based on caste hierarchy. Another incidence which reminded me very strongly about the Indian society is the mistreatment Braithwaite faces at hands of waiters when he is out on a date with Miss Blanchard, his white fellow-teacher and the general scrutiny and doubt their relationship faces. This reeks of incidences in Indian society where quite a few times, couples who marry across religions or castes are socially ostracized and sometimes face dire consequences. Then there are episodes in passing where Brathwaite can’t find accommodation, faces subtle rebukes, name calling etc. However, the most moving and the most emotional episode of the entire book is when initially his students refuse to go to their classmate’s mother’s funeral because they were afraid of “what people would say if they saw them going to a coloured person’s home’’. This breaks Braithwaite, who had come to believe that his students were over their prejudices. This resonates highly with our society, where, till date notions of purity-pollution governs interactions between ‘high’ castes and ‘low castes. However later, Braithwaite is pleasantly shocked when on the day of the funeral, he finds his entire class there, making him cry unashamedly.
Here’s a book written by a gentleman, through and through. The author has a very unique, a very honest style of narration which holds the reader spellbound. The most laudable thing about the book is the dignity and maturity that came through the writing, even during clearly difficult times. This autobiographical novel has so many layers, yet it ingeniously harmonizes the various themes of prejudice, classroom difficulties and teenage problems. This masterpiece, makes you deeply admire Braithwaite and you can’t help but want him as your teacher. His grace, humility, firmness, and most importantly his quiet dignity completely won me over. Also, this book provides an intelligent narrative and a historical perspective on racism. Braithwaite successfully reaches the heart of his readers and makes them instantly connect with the story, the characters and the book. This is the one book you must read- it beautifully illustrates how each of us can move beyond prejudice of any kind to form a true and lasting love for one another. It is that sort of book that the “reader devours quickly, ponders slowly and forgets not at all.”