Yet another death this year, though at the ripe age of 104 was hardly unexpected. He is now little known, but as the author of the best seller To Sir With Love he shot to fame when it was filmed, starring Sydney Poitier in 1967 and the title song by Lulu shot up the charts.
He was born in Guyana, served in WWII and graduated as a physicist at Cambridge but was unable to find work as he claimed “I was too black to be a scientist, and too educated to be a lot of other things.”
He became one of the first black teachers in London, at St George’s in the East End where “the only place on the whole arid horizon was a mangy schoolhouse beside a bomb-racked rotting graveyard and a smelly classroom with 46 foul-mouthed youngsters.”
But, as Matt Schudel from the Washington Post writes:
The school was a laboratory of progressive ideas, with corporal punishment prohibited – even though the students were unruly and coarse.
In Braithwaite’s somewhat fictionalised account, which was published in 1959, the students ignore him in the classroom, curse and slam their desktops as he speaks.
Raising his voice, Braithwaite tells the students he expects them to act like ‘ladies and gentlemen’. He imposes a sense of discipline and decorum on his class by insisting that girls be addressed as “Miss” and the boys by their last names.
He becomes known simply as “Sir” and deviates from the standard curriculum to discuss serious issues with the students: poverty, sex, love and death. After some prodding, the entire class attends the funeral of the mother of a black student. The book also describes Braithwaite’s growing romantic attachments to a white teacher.
At the end of the year the students give Braithwaite a parting gift of 100 monogrammed cigarettes – even though he didn’t smoke – with a note: “To Sir, with love.”
During his 7 years of teaching Braithwaite kept meticulous daily notes, recording which tactics seemed most beneficial in the classroom. After he resigned to work for a London welfare agency, he was about to throw out the notes when a fellow teacher suggested he wrote book based on his experiences.
“It is a book that one devours quickly,” novelist John Wain wrote n a review for the New York Times. “but ponders slowly and forgets – if I may risk the prediction – not at all.”
“Those kids made great impression on me,” he told the Glasgow Herald in 2013. “It struck me one day that the children didn’t have any respect for themselves, and this was why they had no respect for other people and I seized upon that idea. I challenged them to respect themselves.”
Not just a great novelist then, an inspiring teacher whose work should be compulsory reading for ministers who think they know how to teach better than teachers themselves.