The modern classic about a dedicated teacher in a tough London school who slowly and painfully breaks down the barriers of racial prejudice, this is the story of a man's integrity winning through against the odds.
This is my choice for the Book by an Author of Colour category of the 2020 Back to the Classics Challenge. The action takes place in the mid forties, which astonished me because I imagined it was the sixties. That's probably because of the movie starring Sidney Poitier, which was released in 1967 and set around the same time as far as I can recall. But the actual book on which it's based is a real mid-twentieth century classic.
Rick Braithwaite is an ex-RAF pilot who came out of the War with honours. With a Science and Electronics degree behind him, he applies for some engineering positions for which he's highly qualified, but potential employers keep deciding against him on sight because of his skin colour. Every! Single! Time! Braithwaite grows to resent the people who so callously and unfeelingly deny him a right to earn a living.
At last he's interviewed and accepted for a school teacher job at the daunting and dubious Greenslade Secondary School. His position turns out to have a higher turnover than a Harry Potter DADA teacher, because his predecessors have a history of walking out on the spur of the moment. The senior class in question is a bunch of delinquents from the wrong side of the tracks who are disillusioned enough to keep flouting authority. As far as the ruling powers are concerned, Braithwaite, being a coloured man, is second best for them just as they, the dreaded rebels, are for him. But he accepts the challenge with energy and enthusiasm, because he's delighted to have a job at all.
Rather than tailoring his lessons to their supposed standard, Braithwaite makes it clear to the students that he expects them to raise theirs to meet his, which he assures them isn't too high because they are intelligent young men and women. It's really cool to read how he draws the best from each of them. It's one of those paradoxes of life. Advice to not cast pearls before swine makes sense, but so does treating others like the people you want them to be, trusting they'll honour your faith.
Changing times is evident throughout this story, which still comes across so modern, although it took place almost eighty years ago. I appreciate Braithwaite's stern words to the boys, after young Potter turns on the gym teacher Mr Bell, who has mistreated his friend Buckley. 'Are you going to resort to clubs or knives every time you're upset or angered?' He then reasons that there will always be bullies and idiots who anger them on the workplace, which is a fact they must get used to, and insists that Potter apologise to Mr Bell. This is a great scene, yet I can't help wondering if in the twenty-twenties, this lesson of self-control might be allowed to slide in favour of 'standing up for your rights!'
One thing that hasn't changed enough is racial discrimination. You can't read this book without getting angry over the way Braithwaite is treated across the board. I was groaning in sympathy for him and shame for all those others who reject him on sight. Everything he attempts to do, whether applying for jobs or taking his girlfriend out for dinner, attracts the same negative attention. I was fed up with the appalling behaviour of the general public just after reading this 180 page novel, so the pain of facing the same old flak every day of your life for something completely irrelevant and unchangeable must be unimaginable.
The poor guy has to psyche himself up to meet his white girlfriend's parents just as a matter of course. It's all in a day's work, but shouldn't be. Braithwaite describes how defensiveness and edginess can become wound up in a person's integral make-up, all because of the prejudice of others. 'Sticks and stones may break your bones but names will never hurt you,' is truly a limited maxim.
I wasn't crazy about the thread with Braithwaite and his fellow teacher, Gillian Blanchard, because it doesn't seem to fit this particular story. The book's focal awesomeness is all about the changing relationship between him and the students, so whenever it shifts to Braithwaite's romantic life, I wanted to return to the main theme ASAP. I wasn't enthralled with her character, so whatever spark they had didn't work for me.
On the whole, I applaud Braithwaite for writing this book. Without giving himself much of the spotlight at all, he comes across as the dignified, gracious human-being he was, and a great example to take life as it comes with aplomb and tact. As I read, I found myself humming the old song, 'To Sir with Love' sung by Lulu, who played Barbara Pegg in the old 1967 film. Although it's a hard-hitting story, there is also plenty of fun.