The teacher game

29 February 2008

By Kate Long

I spent 2006 writing a novel called The Daughter Game which explores the relationship between a teacher and one of her female pupils. Now, on the eve of its publication, I've been thinking about teachers in general, and the effect two of them in particular had on me.

Until I went to secondary school I was never especially interested in English. True, I was a voracious reader, but my main interests, pre-11, were art and science. My days were filled with making up microscope slides, sketching skulls, or poking litmus paper into household chemicals. English as a subject was okay chiefly because it wasn't maths.

Then I went up to the big school and met Mrs Johnston. She was the kind of teacher I'd been waiting for: kind, traditional and encouraging. She cared about where you put your apostrophes, and whether you could identify an adverb, and she didn't have a fit of the vapours when you confided that you didn't much rate Moonfleet. I liked the lessons because I liked her. So far, so good. But in the third term of my first year she put a poem in front of me, and I had one of those moments where everything in your head shifts round, and your life changes direction.

The Thought Fox by Ted Hughes set something new ticking in my brain. There we were, sitting in our neat rows with the sun streaming in and the dust of twenty five school anthologies sparkling in the light, and me having a silent panic because I couldn't fathom what the heck this poem was about. Then, when the meaning did begin to clear, I didn't have the confidence or maturity to articulate it. Could you write a poem about writing a poem? (I'd never come across a text like it.) But - imagine if you could…! All I really understood during the lesson was that, if this was Eng lit, I was definitely interested. In the following months my marks improved, I began to write poetry myself, and by the time I was sixteen I knew without a doubt that I wanted to read English at university. Did Kathleen Johnston suspect what she'd done to me that day? Possibly not. I think it was just me who heard the Hallelujah Chorus blasting out from under my desk lid.

In the sixth form everything moved up a gear, as it does. Enter Barbara Windle, a brilliantly clever, quietly-spoken Quaker, rumoured to have spent time at Greenham Common. She tolerated my crass politics and my ignorant pronouncements on literature with good-humoured patience. When I dismissed Wordsworth's She Dwelt Among Untrodden Ways because I said the structure reminded me of Mary Had a Little Lamb, she resisted what must have been an overwhelming temptation to call me a bumptious fool. Instead she just smiled gently, in a way that let me know I needed to have another serious think (or grow up some). Like all good teachers, Miss Windle presented the texts, asked the questions and then stepped back, so that even if we didn't know the answers, the ideas implanted themselves for consideration over time. It was Miss Windle who read Sons and Lovers with us, speaking frankly about the power of the sexual relationship, and never once being coy or patronising. Her lessons were where I first heard lines that still give me a tingle today: Emily Dickinson's Our lives are Swiss; T S Eliot's I should have been a pair of ragged claws; George Eliot's …and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.

It's an over-simplification to cast these women as caryatids on which the whole of my love of books and writing rests; there was also the influence of my mother, my tutors at university, of friends and other writers. But I think it is true to say that, without Mrs Johnston and Miss Windle, I wouldn't be the reader or the writer I am now. I might even be working in a lab somewhere, still happily peering down my microscope.

So let's hear it for inspiring teachers, and those moments of small revelation in the classroom, whether they happen in English, maths, biology or PSE. Who knows what directions our lives might have taken without them.