Earlier this week we read with great sadness the obituary of E.R Braithwaite, the author of ‘To Sir, with Love’.
This remarkable teacher, social worker, diplomat, academic and writer lived until he was 104 years old.
A couple of years ago, my husband Michael (see previous post) wrote about Mr Braithwaite for a now defunct blogsite.
Michael was a former pupil of Mr Braithwaite so I’m posting his piece again today. I think it may be of interest to readers who’ve appreciated E.R Braithwaite’s book or enjoyed the 1967 film with Sidney Poitier in the title role.
“E.R Braithwaite was my teacher at Chapman Street Junior Mixed and Infant School in the East End of London. I don’t think many people are aware that before Braithwaite taught at the East End secondary modern school on which ‘To Sir, with Love’ was based he’d already been a teacher in the East End for some years. And that’s how in 1956, when I was nine years old, I was fortunate to become one of his pupils.
As a teacher he was simply inspirational: by which I mean that my young life would have been so much the poorer if he hadn’t been in it. I vividly recall him reading aloud in class extracts from the short stories he’d written about his boyhood in Guyana. From these we learned that his name was “Ricky”, because that’s what his mother called him in the stories. This was extraordinary: in those days primary pupils never got to discover their teachers’ first name. Mr Braithwaite read beautifully. His voice seemed deep and cultured and contained a few unfamiliar but attractive vowel sounds. It was also curiously resonant and his sentences seemed to hang suspended in the air well after he’d finished speaking. It was a most distinctive voice and if I close my eyes now, even after all these years, I can still hear it.
On another occasion, in 1957, I remember Mr Braithwaite gathering the whole class around his desk and excitedly informing us that this was a momentous day because the Gold Coast had achieved independence and was henceforward to be known as Ghana. I recall him showing us where the Gold Coast was on the world globe which every classroom had in those days. The happiness and delight on his face made a deep impression on me.
Mr Braithwaite encouraged us to write. He set a literary competition with the prize of a book token for the best essay. I won the prize with my piece about a film I’d seen which was set in Venice. I never traded the token in for a book because it was my most prized possession and I never wanted to relinquish it. Unfortunately, I lost the token, which disappeared when we moved home in 1960. I also recall Mr Braithwaite telling my mother that I would never be a mathematician but I could become a writer.
Mr Braithwaite was a strikingly handsome man (my single parent mother was always saying how incredibly good looking he was). He dressed immaculately in beautiful dark suits, crisp white shirts and lovely silk ties. He illuminated the drab world of our 1950s primary classroom with the technicolour charisma of his arresting presence. He was the first real star I ever met, even before he became famous.
His shiny black shoes always fascinated me; they were so unusual. I craved a pair and dragged my mother round all the shoe shops in Watney Street market and Whitechapel but could never find a pair of shoes like his. Of course, I hadn’t the courage to ask him where he bought them.
E.R also encouraged my secretly nursed ambition to become an actor. I remember coming into school one day and he pressed a book of poems into my hand and told me that I’d be reading one of the poems in assembly. The poem was ‘Leisure’ by W.H. Davies, and despite my initial nervousness, reciting it to what in those days seemed to be a massive audience did wonders for my self-confidence. E.R also gave me a substantial role in the group recitation of Longfellow’s ‘Hiawatha’ which was presented as a piece of choral speaking on Speech Day. Unfortunately, the parents were not appreciative of Longfellow’s extremely long, epic poem, and there was much fidgeting, talking and restlessness in the audience by the time we’d got half way through. Visibly annoyed, E.R. stepped forward, snapped his fingers at the choral speakers and ushered us all off stage.
In 1959, when I was at secondary school, I became aware that Braithwaite had published ‘To Sir, with Love’. I acquired a copy and was amazed to find that it reproduced vividly life in the East End as I knew it. The Commercial Road and other places familiar to me had been recreated in an altogether different ontology – within the pages of a book: and it was thrilling to know that I had actually been taught by the man who had written this amazing work.”
© Michael Murray 2014