E.R. Braithwaite, best known for his memoir of teaching in London’s impoverished East End “To Sir With Love,” which was adapted into a hit 1967 film by the same name, died Monday in Rockville, Md. He was 104. His companion Ginette Ast confirmed his passing to the Associated Press.
A native of Guyana, Braithwaite was the son of Oxford University graduates who served as a pilot in Britain’s Royal Air Force in World War II and graduated from Cambridge University in 1949 with a degree in physics. However he found it difficult to land a job with his educational background and eventually became a teacher in a London secondary school.
After teaching for nine years, he worked in a welfare office and began thinking about writing a book about his experience. The title came from one of those experiences in which his students had given him a package of monogrammed cigarettes.
“On the wrapping of the box, they had stuck a piece of paper and written on it, ‘To Sir, With Love,’ ” he later wrote. The book, his first and most famous, was released in 1959.
Braithwaite’s other books included the novel “Paid Servant,” based on his time as a social worker, and “Honorary White,” a report of his visit to South Africa in the 1970s. The autobiographical “Reluctant Neighbors,” with a structure similar to Amiri Baraka’s explosive play “Dutchman,” recounts an increasingly contentious train conversation between Braithwaite and a well-meaning, but patronizing white American businessman who cannot fathom Braithwaite’s despair and anger.
At various times, Braithwaite lived in Guyana, London, Paris, New York and Washington. He taught at several schools, including New York University and Howard University, was a consultant for UNESCO and lectured in Europe in 2013 on behalf of the U.S. State Department.
“To Sir, With Love” was adapted into a film starring Sidney Poiter, released in 1967. While the book focused on racial differences and struggles in Britain’s postwar era, the film focused mainly on class, which arguably helped it become a box office success.
“I don’t know if I changed any lives or not, but something did happen between them and me, which was quite gratifying,” Braithwaite said of his former students during a 2013 interview with the online publication Coffee-Table Notes, adding that he believed the book still resonated.
“It appeals to a lot of people. They each find what they’re looking for. Each person is looking for something he or she could use in their daily life.”