Eucharistic Lessons from “To Sir, With Love”

My wife and I are self-confessed Anglophiles and “Celtophiles.”  If it’s British, etc., generally, we’re hooked.  BBC rules in our household media choices.  Additionally, even though just a child in the Sixties, I love the music of the British Invasion, thus, I am constantly listening to the Beatles, the Kinks, and other groups and performers of the era.  A few years ago I purchased the movie, To Sir, With Love (1967 trailer).  “Blimey, I ‘ad to!”  It was set in the mid-sixties!  In London!  

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The movie was released in 1967.  It was produced and directed by James Clavell, and based on the 1959 novel, To Sir, With Love, by E. R. Braithwaite (a semi-autobiographical work).  It, of course, stars the great Sidney Poitier, and the pop singer of the day Lulu (Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie), whom, I image in some way, paved the way for the equally talented contemporary British vocalist, Adele.  By today’s standards the movie is more than a bit sentimental, cliche, and predictable.  This is excusable since it was apparently made for a young audience.  In spite of these faults, the movie has more than enough going for it:  the flick is all about the themes of transformation, redemption, and the gratitude that comes from such changes.  The response of gratitude is clearly found in the lyrics of the song, “To Sir, With Love,” (https://youtu.be/k8-M_wg8AI4, and then 40 years later, https://youtu.be/GnyKuya8HVU).  Thus, it is about the eucharistic life.

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In summary, Poitier plays an electrical engineer, Mark Thackeray. He finds employment between professional jobs teaching in a tough, working class school in London’s East End.  The high school students are ill mannered , lack basic self-respect and common decency.  All the faculty are at a loss regarding how to reach them — Thackeray among them.  Then comes the crisis point for him, and with it insight and the transformation that comes with it.  The transformation of the students that follows Thackeray’s change in teaching strategy is, again, cliche and sentimental.  Yet, in spite of this, it demonstrates the truth that the change of one can effect the change of many.

Let’s examine what happens to Thackeray.  He sees beyond his difficult, and nasty circumstances.  With his insight the engineer engineers his change, and becomes a gifted teacher.  With this transformation, he receives his students to himself, and gives himself to them.  This is a Christ-like action, and is seen in Christ’s Incarnation, and the Eucharist — Jesus receives his faithful communicants, welcoming them to his banquet of the Eucharist, and gives them his Body and Blood for their transformation.

From this, I come to St. Paul’s words found in the text I attempt to live by, and quote ever so frequently, 1 Thes 5: 16 —18:

Rejoice always, pray constantly, give thanks in all things — for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.

With this verse, I offer a commentary on the verse which relates to the movie — especially Thackeray’s eucharistic, Christ-like actions.  The phrase, “give thinks in all things, shows our relational union with all things.  Regarding this phrase, some English translations read, “…in all circumstances”.  This is a good translation, and gets to the heart of what St. Paul is getting at in the epistle’s verse.  However, a better way to translate the phrase is, “give thanks in, with, and for all things.”  Although awkward, it captures our relational union with the circumstance in which we find ourselves — and by extension — in which Thackeray found himself.

This awkward translation teaches how we are to view ourselves in any situation – however pleasant or unpleasant it may be.  “…In, with, and for all things” states that we incarnate the situation.  We are in union with it.  We do not keep it at arms’ length and deny the opportunity.  We are to, as did Thackeray, act in solidarity with the circumstance and the people found in it.  “…In, with, and for all things” demands that we, in some way, are to capture it, and bear it as priests to Christ that he may act to transform and redeem it.  We offer it to our Lord and the situation itself is in Christ.  Acting in such a eucharistic manner also bears it to the Eucharist of the Divine Liturgy:  our grateful action is joined to the Gifts which will become Christ’s Body and Blood.

To conclude, by Thackeray’s embrace of the difficulty and his eucharistic actions, the students, and jaded faculty are transformed.  The themes of gratitude and transformation are evident.  The lyrics of the song sung by Lulu show the redeemed, eucharistic response of those who received Thackeray’s gift of himself:

Those school girl days of telling tales
And biting nails are gone
But in my mind I know
They will still live on and on
But how do you thank someone
Who has taken you from crayons to perfume?
It isn’t easy, but I’ll try
If you wanted the sky
I would write across the sky in letters
That would soar a thousand feet high
To Sir, with love!

The time has come for closing books
And long last looks must end
And as I leave I know
That I am leaving my best friend
A friend who taught me right from wrong
And weak from strong
That’s a lot to learn, what
can I give you in return?
If you wanted the moon
I would try to make a star
But I, would rather you let me give my heart
To Sir, with love!

In Christ,
Fr. Irenaeus


One Comment on “Eucharistic Lessons from “To Sir, With Love””


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