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Anything but the big pencil

John Hegley talks to Susan Thomas. I went to St Joseph's Roman Catholic primary school in Luton. I remember it as being very clean, with shiny parquet floors and lots of statues. There were nuns in long white habits and lay teachers.

I've chosen one of them, Miss Slaughter - not her real name - because she made more impression on me than anyone else and because the things she did were very useful in teaching me humility.

I was eight or nine, I suppose, and a real bighead. If somebody had a football I'd take it away and say who should pick the team. And once I referred to some child as being in the C stream and she said, very sharply, "What do you mean? There's no streaming here!" But I was very high status then, if not very popular. I was tall, bright and the third best fighter in the class.

I remember clearly what she did to me. I can still hear her saying it. It was at the end of the year when she was giving out the test results and she said to the class, "Who do you think came first overall?" And they all said, "John 'egley, Miss." And she said "No. It was (whoever)!" And then she said, "And who do you think came second?" And they all said, "John 'egley, Miss." And again she said no. And so on, right down to ninth place.

And I was terribly shocked. I was very smug but now it does sound more like cruelty than a lesson in humility. On another occasion I was sent down to the babies' class. I had to sit on a tiny chair and I remember saying, "Please don't make me write with a big pencil", because that was the worst humiliation. But I had to, and at breaktime all the other children came and looked at me through the window.

She was probably quite young. Maybe straight out of college. She had red hair and freckles. She was a bit plump and in some ways quite childlike - when she was marking books she'd lay her head down sideways on her forearm.

She used to read us William stories. She read very well, perhaps better than anyone else, but the sort of thing she'd do to get the other kids against me was to say that because I'd mucked about we couldn't have a story.

It all sounds very negative, but she was a good teacher. Quite inspirational sometimes. One day, for instance, in English, she struck a match and got us to describe it in intense, precise detail.

And sometimes she spoke to me quite fondly. The first poem I ever wrote, one kid said, "That sounds like a real poem, Miss." And she said, "It is a real poem!" And that was a great moment.

Various teachers battled with me at school. Somewhere along the way I lost all that confidence and when all the other kids shot up I stayed as small and thin as I had been when I was 10.

I went on to Luton Grammar School and English was the only subject where I was above average. But there was no joy in it - no real creative writing at all. I had an awful adolescence. I went into the sixth form and left at the end of the first term. I was 161Z2. I tried to get a job in a shoe factory and in a bank and in the end I thought I'm going to have to be humble and put on my school uniform again and say that I need to go back.

And the deputy head said, "You'll have to pull your socks up." And the English teacher said I had an attitude problem. And the biology teacher, Michael Wagner, told me that he was absolutely delighted that I'd come back. Just before I'd left I'd written an essay about the amoeba and it was brilliant. He'd read it to the class to show them what an essay should be. It seemed to me that it was the first time anyone had said anything positive about me in years.

Later he ran a biology field trip and because my parents couldn't afford it he told the head that the school should fund me because I was such a worthy pupil. I had a chance to be away with other kids and I just shone. And they came back and said "Hegley's fantastic!" and that they hadn't realised what a gem they had in their haystack. And that was the beginning of getting the confidence to perform.

Mr Wagner was wonderfully eccentric. He drove a huge old Bentley and he had rosy cheeks and an enormous balding head, usually covered with one of those furry Russian hats.

As for what these two teachers had in common, I suppose one wanted to bring out my skills and the other could accept them and send me off in the direction of my own choosing.

John Hegley read English at university and became a poet, publishing, performing, contributing to BBC TV's The News in Verse and to the Guardian. His most recent book, These Were Your Fathers, is published by Methuen, Pounds 8.99. He will be performing at the Bloomsbury Theatre in January.

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