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From TO SIR, WITH LOVE
by E.R. Braithwaite
They now accepted the things I said completely, unquestioningly, because they had accepted me, and no one seemed disposed to query the authenticity of anything which bore the seal “Sir said”.
Back at school the children scattered towards the dining hall or home and Gillian and I went off to the staffroom. I had seen very little of her on the way back, and now as we settled down to our sandwiches she told me how much she had enjoyed the visit.
“It was so much nicer than I expected, Rick, I mean being with them off the school premises.”
“I know what you mean. They’re really nice people, as Mrs. Drew says.”
“It’s more than that. On the way back I was talking with Moira Joseph and Effie Crook; they spoke to me as equals, and I had the odd feeling that they knew more about life than I did.”
“That’s not surprising. Moira’s mother has been in a convalescent home for nine weeks, tuberculosis I think, and Moira has to mother the family. Two younger ones are at junior school nearby; she’s allowed to leave school early each afternoon to collect them”.
“God, how dreadful!”
“I don’t think she minds in the least; rather enjoys it, I suppose. She told me about the way her father praises her cooking. I do think we often make the mistake of lumping them all together as‘kids’”.
I sat looking at her, completely lost for words; women say the damnedest things. “Well, you have noticed it, haven’t you?” The smile did not detract from the serious note in her voice.
“No, I haven’t. I treat her no differently from any of the others.”
“Now don’t be silly, Rick. I’m sure you don’t, but that would make no difference. It’s quite the usual thing, you know; I’m sure some of the smaller boys in my class are dying for love of me.”
Her silvery laughter rang through the room; and I found it impossible to be annoyed with her. She gave me a long searching look.
“Rick, I think you’re the one who’s treating them like kids. But don’t make that mistake with the Dare girl; she’s a woman in every sense of the word.”
“Now, wait a moment, Gillian; there’s nothing significant in Pamela’s action in the train, at least, not to me.”
“Have it your own way. Not that I really blame the girl a bit – you are rather overpowering, you know.”
Immediately I felt a change in the atmosphere. Out of nowhere something had entered into our relationship, a new element which at once excited, delighted and sobered me. I suddenly felt agitated and confused; and, making some hasty and rather silly excuses, I left her and went down to my classroom to sort myself out. This thing had somehow caught me by surprise. Yet, as I sat there, I wondered whether I was being foolishly premature, reading too much into a simple remark. I liked Gillian immensely; there had sprung up between us a very delightful camaraderie which I cherished and wished above all else to preserve.
Sitting with Gillian in the safe comfort of the staffroom was one thing; exposing her to those hard stares and vindictive faces was another. How long would our happy association survive the malignity of stares which were deliberately intended to make the woman feel unclean, as if she had abjectly degraded not merely herself but all womanhood? Only the strongest women could survive such treatment.
It seems as though there were some unwritten law in Britain which required any healthy, able-bodied negro, resident there to be either celibate by inclination, or else a master of the art of sublimation. Utterly, inhumanly unreasonable! We were to be men, but without manhood.
My mind was full of these thoughts as Gillian walked into my classroom. Her usually gentle face was grave and set. I stood up as she approached my table.
“What’s the matter, Rick?”
“Oh, nothing really. I wanted to think about something for a while.”
“Couldn’t it have waited until later?” Her dark eyes were glowing wonderfully in a face made pale by agitation.
“I suppose so. It was rather stupid of me. I’m sorry.”
“Was it because of what I said?” Her lips were quivering slightly, and I wanted only to take her in my arms.
“Partly. It was something I suddenly realized while you were speaking.”
“Something about me, about us?”
“Yes, about us.”
“I felt it too, Rick.”
I stared at her, feeling helplessly out of my depth. Things were happening so quickly I could hardly keep pace with them.
“Are you angry with me, Rick?”
“Angry? How could I be?”
“That’s good.” The smile was back on her face. I was always fascinated by that smile. It began with a faint twitching near the corners of her mouth, then flashed quickly, like a streak of lightning, to illuminate the depths of her eyes.
“See you after school.” And she was gone, leaving me confused, bewildered, but gloriously happy.
The following morning I was a bit late for school. Those damned trains were becoming more and more unpredictable; they always managed to get held up just outside a station, so that there was no alternative to waiting. The children were all in their places when I arrived, and as I stepped into the room they greeted me as with one voice, “Good morning, Sir.”
I was so surprised I must have gaped at them for a moment before returning their greeting. This had never happened before. Usually I greeted them first just before registration and would receive a reply from those who felt like it. This was overwhelmingly different. I recovered myself and walked towards my table, and there it was. In the centre of my table was a large vase in which was neatly arranged a bunch of flowers. Some were slightly bedraggled; all had evidently been collected from the tiny backyards and window boxes of their homes. For me this was the most wonderful bouquet in the world; it was an accolade bestowed collectively by them on me. I turned to look at their pleased, smiling faces and said, with a full heart, “Thank you, all of you.”
5.In small groups, discuss the possible merits of the book in question. Prove that it could have been a great piece of work that made an impact on teachers and not them only.
6.In small groups, discuss another aspect of the narrative. It’s multiculturalism. Do you think it’s becoming more and more of a problem today, even for teachers? Please, explain why or why not.
7.Work in small groups. Discuss the following statements.
· The above story proves effectively that even the best of the best teachers are just human. Do you agree with this idea?
· Every teacher should get a pet, preferably a pet student. How true do you think it is – or should be?
· Good teachers always – almost always – share an idealistic view on life. Do you think it’s a curse – or a blessing?
· The flowers that the protagonist gets in the above episode are definitely symbolic. Why do you think it looked like “the most wonderful bouquet in the world”?
8.In your group, share the results of your mini-discussions. Agree – or disagree – on a grander scale.
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