Friday 4 June 2021

A Book That Changed Me, by Brian Wharton: "To Sir, With Love," by E. R. Braithwaite

A book that changed my life is To Sir, With Love, a semi-autobiographical novel written by E.R. Braithwaite and first published in 1959. The book centres on a young Guyanese engineer who takes a job at a tough East London secondary school whilst awaiting a post in his chosen career. He is appointed to teach a group of difficult 14–15-year-olds about the realities of life, as well as some lessons on good manners and personal hygiene.

I first came across the book as a 15-year-old when my own school seemed to mirror that in the book, albeit twenty years later when nothing had really changed for pupils in the secondary modern system. While I was at school we were subjected to an experiment where we kept the same form teacher for three years. Mr D was a good teacher who taught me English and provided us with Drama classes, a path that I was to follow later in life. However, unlike the teacher in the novel, he was unable to maintain discipline and so often lessons would descend into chaos. We did, though, manage to read some good texts including Kes, Animal Farm, The Long, the Short and the Tall, as well as this one.

To Sir, With Love concerns itself with many themes, including racism, class, and education. When I first read the book, I was aware of the conflict facing the black teacher in an almost entirely white community, but I also recognised in it my own problematic education. I re-read the book several times in my teens and, having seen the film which was made in 1967 starring Lulu, it gave me a romantic and nostalgic view of my own schooldays. The book and film still resonate with me today.

About the reviewer

Brian Wharton writes drama, short stories and reviews.

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