I’ve introduced most of my family members to the British film, To Sir, with Love (1967) starring the late great Sydney Poitier. Having been an educator and challenged with racial issues, socioeconomic issues, and trauma in the classroom, this film is very important to me. In the film Mark Thackeray (Sydney Portier) accepts a job as a teacher despite having his heart set on an engineering career, in a London school that would be deemed today as a behavioral. Sydney Portier brilliantly portrays the teacher who grapples with being a racialized educator in a lower socioeconomic school teaching predominantly white students who are not without their own troubles. At the end of the film, the students experience a great deal of growth having been taught by Mr. Thackeray, Poitier’s character, who realizes his work as an educator is far from over.
Depending on your social location, To Sir, with Love means many things. To me, it is a reminder of the importance of Black men in helping professions such as education and social work. Black men have lived experiences that differ from many other people – we are expected to be on the margins of society and at the same time we are also a source of inspiration and intrigue for others.
Secondly, education has transformative power. The students in the film were better for having known Mr. Poitier’s character. People’s ability to be healed and to heal themselves may also correlate to their ability to access information and services they need. A lack of class can be a barrier to healing in some ways.
Sydney Poitier's work made us think. Humbly born to tomato farmers, he became the first Black man ever to win an Oscar. Mr. Poitier confronted our assumptions and interrogated expectations and stereotypes. He did this all the while maintaining his dignity as he did not take roles that did not honor his craft and his humanity.
He left us with this quote, “Living consciously involves being genuine; it involves listening and responding to others honestly and openly; it involves being in the moment.”
Rest in love King.