I’ve read a lot of short books this year, most of them being the memoirs and journals of my favorite writer, Ruskin Bond. However, To Sir, With Love is the first book this year that I’ve read in a day. Our weekend holidays got extended by three days because of the extreme pollution that followed Diwali, and I decided to finally read the book – barely 185 pages – rather than putting it off again like I had been since I bought it back early in the year.
“A man who is strong and tough never needs to show it in his dress or the way he cuts his hair. Toughness is a quality of the mind, like bravery or honesty or ambition; it has nothing whatever to do with muscles.”- E.R. Braithwaite, To Sir, With Love
I’d heard about To Sir, With Love before – mostly about the movie, and I assumed the book was good, given that it’s now a classic and has been praised for its story. I didn’t know what I was expecting as I started reading it because I hadn’t read any classic before and I was afraid the talk about racism would bore me. I don’t have problem with the topic itself, but rather how sometimes stories about such issues get really preachy.
However, the book was far from that. I’ve read a book about racism in America before – The Help by Katherine Stockett, a terrific book that introduced me to the life of black people back in the 1960s. Before reading it I had no knowledge about how bad the situation was, and it was frustrating and sickening to know how prejudiced and narrow-minded people can be. I found myself annoyed at how the blacks were being treated and I was glad such behavior did not exist anymore (though I suspect in some remote corner of the world it might; I’m embarrassed certain people have been subjected to racism in India – I wish it were all over now).
To Sir, With Love does deal with racism, but in a different way. It doesn’t talk about it on a large scale but rather focuses on the life of one individual -Ricky Braithwaite, a Negro – who goes to teach at Greenslade Secondary School in a slum area, its kids notorious for unruly and objectionable behavior, and how Ricky goes on to change these kids he hates in the beginning but comes to love by the end. We see racism through Ricky’s perspective and realize how it was embedded in the littlest of things, be it a black teacher with a class of mostly white kids, a black man in love with a white woman, or resistance from expression of sympathy and grief between the blacks and the whites. It’s all there, in the little things. And that’s where change begins from.
It might sound odd, but mass movements don’t help solve social evils as effectively small efforts on our part. Shouting slogans about the rising pollution won’t help the environment; using public transport and planting trees will. Similarly, merely talking or writing about racism (or feminism,sexism, homophobia, etc.) won’t suffice, we have to take a step in the direction of change and progress.
Besides racism, there are other things in the book that I liked, particularly the school headmaster A. Florian’s perspective on teaching and punishment, and his love for the brash and unruly kids. The teachers, most of them at least, also impressed me, particularly because they all believed in the kids’ potential in spite of their behavior. They all had hope for them, and I really liked this attitude, because most of us would be criticizing such kids instead of thinking they could do much good only if they were steered in the right direction.
There’s no corporal punishment here, or any other form of punishment for that matter, and the children are encouraged to speak up for themselves.
Braithwaite somehow understood it, though he’d never taught before. His approach to teaching was creative and engaging. He hardly referred to the textbooks and rather involved the students in the discussions, devising problems that resonated with their daily lives. He realized that it is important to treat them as equals and not as kids, but the thing I think worked the best was that the school allowed the students to review their week – everything from their classes to their teachers and everything else in between – without worrying about punishment or offending anyone. This helped, according to the Headmaster, to understand what the kids enjoyed, what they didn’t, and where the school could make improvements. I really loved this idea.
The best thing I liked about how Ricky handled his classes was that he allowed his students to present their own perspectives on the topics they discussed. I believe in expression of thought, and for an adolescent, it is a very essential need – the need to be heard. Presenting your opinions helps not only to learn what you know, but what others know when they share their perspectives, and thereby increase your knowledge about something. I really wish I had a teacher like Ricky, and that his system of teaching one that every school adopts. After all, education is not just about top grades, it’s also about cultivating a healthy mind and perspective, and Ricky’s classes did just that.
All in all, it was a one-time read, but enjoyable nonetheless.
“Teaching is like having a bank account. You can happily draw on it while it is well supplied with new funds; otherwise you’re in difficulties.
Every teacher should have a fund of ready information on which to draw; he should keep that fund supplied regularly by new experiences, new thoughts and discoveries, by reading and moving around among people from whom he can acquire such things.”
― E.R. Braithwaite,