- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 4, 2003

E.R. Braithwaite has been a teacher for much of his adult life, but he views his role differently than many of his colleagues do. Rather than being “the teacher,” and his charges being “students,” he believes everyone in his classroom is a co-educator.

Mr. Braithwaite, author of “To Sir, With Love,” yesterday talked to the senior English class, faculty, and parents at Coolidge High School in Northwest about his humble beginnings in Guyana and his mother’s insistence that he excel in his studies.

“I was a good student, not because of me. I had a mom who insisted I be a good student. I was always a voracious reader and I wanted to go to Cambridge. My parents went to Oxford, but I didn’t want to go there. I wanted to be the best physicist the world had seen,” he said.

He told them about his temporary assignment at a gritty high school in London’s East End —the only job he could get after serving in World War II, despite his having graduated from Cambridge with a degree in physics.

“When I went into my first school to teach I went in there knowing not how to teach,” he said. “I learned how to teach from my students. … Instead of one teacher and 46 students, it became 47 teachers and 47 students.

“I took a temporary position and stayed for 9-1/2 years. I was seduced by my students. They had such an effect on me — I didn’t want to leave. They made me a teacher. They taught me to respect them unconditionally,” he said of the experience that became the focus of “To Sir, With Love” published in 1959 and later made into a movie starring Sidney Poitier.

Mr. Braithwaite was invited to the school by 12th-grade English teacher Loretta Kelly, who had assigned her students to read and analyze the 22 chapters of the best-selling novel and do vocabulary building exercises.

“I wanted to find a way to motivate my students. I wanted something that would get them excited. We read the book and the students fell in love with it. Then, they told other students about the book,” Ms. Kelly said.

Mr. Braithwaite, a stately gentleman who teaches honors English at Howard University, assured the group he was not there to hold class.

“I am not here to lecture to you. I don’t lecture at Howard University. I talk with students. We have dialogues. With a lecture, I stand, talk and leave,” he said as he strolled through the school’s library, engaging students in lively discussions.

He urged the students to walk into the library and find the biggest dictionary available. “You must know your language, you must own it — make it serve you in every possible way. When you can read and speak well, your life belongs to you,” Mr. Braithwaite said.

Students and faculty peppered him with questions during the hour-long chat. One student asked how he felt knowing students analyzed his book. Others were interested in how to become writers. Still others asked how he came up with the title for the book.

“When I wrote ‘To Sir, With Love’ it was not because I was a writer. There was so much pain and hurt inside of me. Luckily, because I was familiar with words, I could compose words and people don’t see the pain. Words have always been my friends and sometimes I’ve even exploited them,” he replied with a smile.

Onyinyechi Anyanwu, 18 who hopes to attend Hampton University, said he enjoyed the class project, was inspired by “To Sir, With Love,” and thrilled by Mr. Braithwaite’s visit.

Onyinyechi said he learned an invaluable life lesson. “Although there may be hard times in life, as long as you have set goals — they can be achieved. [Mr. Braithwaite] was a qualified engineer and physicist who could not get a job, but he never gave up — he adapted and succeeded.”

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