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Literature / To Sir, with Love

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To Sir, With Love is a 1959 autobiographical novel by E.R. Braithwaite, on which the more famous film is based.

Set in 1945, the novel tells of Braithwaite's experiences as a teacher at Greenslade School in London's East End, following his discharge from the Royal Air Force and subsequent difficulties in landing work as a telecommunications engineer (despite being more than qualified) because of his skin color and the underlying racism in Britain at the time. After arriving at Greenslade, he quickly finds himself assigned to the school's senior class, consisting of several misfits who had previously and successfully forced Braithwaite's predecessor to quit in frustration and are now determined to repeat their success with their new "blackie" teacher.

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Over the course of the story, Braithwaite narrates his efforts to reach his students, while learning about each of their respective home situations and struggles. He also talks about his interactions with his fellow teachers and how they approach their jobs at Greenslade, and also throws in commentaries at different points about the social and racial mindset of Britain as a whole and London's East End in particular.

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Tropes present in the novel include:

  • Actually Pretty Funny: During a lesson on weights, Denham childishly counts off boxing-related weight-terms on his fingers, capping it off with a bow to the class when they laugh at his display. Braithwaite immediately seeks to restore order, although he admits in the narrative that "in another place, at another time, I, too, would have laughed as uproariously as the rest."
  • Apathetic Teacher: Weston, like his film counterpart would later be.
  • Asshole Victim: The boy that Patrick fights with and then stabs in the latter half of the novel, though he's only injured and not killed. It turns out that the victim in question was on probation for having previously burned his mother with a hot poker, and was known for being a bully to his classmates.
  • At Least I Admit It: At one point in the narrative, while commenting on Britain's low-brow racism at the time the story takes place, Braithwaite compares it with American racism and then declares that at least Americans aren't shy about stating exactly why they'll behave hostilely to blacks, whereas British racism is worse because Britons will look for all sorts of excuses to disenfranchise blacks that don't appear to cast them as racist.
  • Beware the Nice Ones:
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    • Potter, one of the boys in Braithwaite's class, is described as being a good-natured sort...yet the moment one of his friends suffers a minor injury after having been pressed into performing a difficult maneuver by the gym teacher, Potter grabs a broken piece of gym equipment and prepares to batter the man (and probably would have, too, if Braithwaite hadn't shown up just then).
    • Patrick, another boy from the class, is a quiet sort who's never gotten into any trouble...yet at one point he finds himself before the local court for stabbing another boy during a fight.
  • Defeat Means Respect: Denham, the one holdout in the class's initial hostility toward Braithwaite, eventually challenges him to a boxing match, ostensibly to provide a change of routine in gym class, but really to show his dominance by kicking Braithwaite's ass. Although Denham manages to get in one punch, Braithwaite lays him out on the floor a moment later with a punch to the gut...and thereafter Denham shows more respect to Braithwaite as his teacher. This scene, of course, is later replicated in the film.
  • Hot for Teacher: Pamela has a not-quite-subtle crush on Braithwaite, which unnerves him because he sees her as a child even despite her obvious physical growth.
  • If Only You Knew: At one point when Pamela tears the boys a new one for a moment of Innocently Insensitive (when one of them expresses surprise that Braithwaite's blood is red), Denham snarks as a parting shot that Pamela must only be so bothered because she's crushing on Braithwaite. Thing is, Denham only says it as an impromptu taunt without realizing that Pamela does in fact have a crush on Braithwaite.
  • Maligned Mixed Marriage: When Braithwaite starts courting fellow teacher Gillian Blanchard, a white woman, her parents quite frankly let him know that the young couple will be hit with scrutiny and hostility because of this trope. Braithwaite, however, is determined not to let it stop him and Gillian.
  • Only in It for the Money: Braithwaite honestly states in the narrative that the only reason he applied to teach at Greenslade was so he could afford to eat, as he kept getting rejected for engineering jobs because he was black.
  • Primal Scene: As in the later film, Pamela experiences an estrangement from her mother despite them living in the same area. Turns out, this is because Mrs. Dare invited a boyfriend to spend the night, then Pamela came home early and caught the two of them in bed. It's not helped by the fact that Mrs. Dare had beforehand been the subject of gossip among the neighbors for having had several boyfriends in a row, which also got her estranged from her own mother (Pam's grandmother).
  • Rage Breaking Point: Braithwaite's growing irritation with his students' indifferent and outright rebellious behavior finally reaches boiling point when he discovers they've tossed a used sanitary napkin in the classroom furnace in an attempt to burn it (in the film, the item is unidentified and isn't even shown).
  • Sadist Teacher: The boys perceive the gym teacher, Mr. Bell, as this, especially since he picks on one particular boy, Fats, on a regular basis. In truth, Bell isn't so much sadistic as that he's simply got very high standards.
  • Screw This, I'm Outta Here!: Shortly before Braithwaite's arrival at Greenslade, his predecessor Hackman pulled this after being utterly frustrated with the senior class's antics and disrespect toward him as their teacher.
  • The Unreveal: At the end of the novel, the class gives Braithwaite a gift-wrapped item that is never identified (in the film, it's a coffee cup).
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