In 1959, E.R. Braithwaite wrote a book called To Sir With Love,based on his experiences teaching teenagers in London’s poor East End. The book became a
major best seller and iconic motion film, starring Sidney Poitier in 1967. Even today the impact of his work as a teacher has inspired a multitude to follow in his footsteps. But, in the long scheme of things, Braithwaite’s stellar career as an author is but a moment in the life of an incredible man.
Born of Oxford educated parents — both mother and father — in British Colonial Guyana, Braithwaite eventually went from being an unemployed, racially discriminated, Ph.D physicist in London, to a teacher, best selling novelist, social worker, consultant to UNESCO, Permanent Representative to the U.N., and professor at NYU and Howard Universities. He is a man who has looked at life as a whole, not defining himself by any one moment or career, a true Renaissance man.
Ted stood straight and bright-eyed at the podium last night as he reminisced about his life and his famous book. The content of his talk was intriguing — Life on Guyana, a land of water where the sole purpose of being, was the cultivation and export of sugar. His own odd situation as an extremely bright black boy on scholarship in a school of privileged white students, where he was constantly held up as a role model of studiousness to the others. A territory under British rule, where every large house or new car undoubtedly belonged to a white man. He told us of his voyage to England on a steamer, where he spent long days holed up in a small cabin studying and reading books on every subject, and ending up on the docks of Liverpool. His studies as a Ph.D student were normal, seeing white people without shoes and begging, was completely foreign and disorienting. He said, when “one man begged for coppers, I gave him a few pieces of silver.” He then shook his head as if still perplexed by the memory.
Braithwaite is a humble, no-nonsense man. He takes inordinately long pauses between his words. “To keep the audience in anticipation,” he said more than once. The habit made it difficult to listen to an otherwise engaging tale. Yet, later, when we discovered he’d be one hundred at his next birthday in June, those of us in the audience were amazed. He appeared nearly thirty years younger than his years and of course, allowances were made.
When asked about his inter-racial marriage at a time when such things were rare, he said he never paid attention to such things. “If you look right and left to see who is staring at you, you’ll ending up [falling and] breaking your nose.”
He focused attention on his book career stating writing came easily and his fame a great surprise to himself and his family. As to the movie? He snorted a quick, “No,” when asked if he liked Poitier’s portrayal. “The movie made it look like fun and games,” he replied.
And what was the mysterious, unnamed present given to him by his students at the end of To Sir With Love? Braithwaite seems embarrassed, then admits, “A very expensive set of about 100 cigarettes, custom monogramed ERB.” Unfortunately Braithwaite, didn’t smoke.
Recently, someone said, to get struck by lightening, you must stand in the rain. Ted Braithwaite has been struck several times by the lightening rod of fame and success, but his story proves the adage true. He certainly has known the rain.