Lily Cole

The model, actress and environmental activist recalls a 'Miss Honey' and a teacher who encouraged her to question everything

I had a number of supportive teachers, but there were two who had a particular influence on me.

Miss Colyer, at Hallfield Primary School, was like my Miss Honey (in Roald Dahl's Matilda). She was kind and gentle and not only a good teacher but became a good friend to me at a difficult time. We lived in London and one summer our family weren't able to take a holiday as my mum was unwell, so Miss Colyer took me on a holiday for a week at her house in London. We painted eggs, learned to dip croissants in hot chocolate and visited London Zoo.

When I left that school, age 11, I saved up to take Miss Colyer to the Royal Tournament show (a military tattoo), using coupons from a newspaper, as a surprise gift.

I had been bullied a bit in schools previously and so the experience I had with her, and with that school in general, felt embracing and supportive. There were many wonderful teachers there who I feel grateful to, including our wonderful headmaster, Mr Bramley.

The supportive environment allowed me to gain confidence and grow into myself. It was also interesting to be in a school with incredibly mixed socio-economic brackets. Growing up in a school where being white wasn't the norm and where there were many refugees from wars had a positive and expansive effect on me, as I truly didn't see any significance to racial distinctions, beyond being interested in the different countries my friends came from.

I am still in touch with Lara Colyer. My sister taught at Hallfield under Lara's direction and my mum has become friends with her. Last year, we went to her wedding.

Later, aged 16-18, I went to Latymer Upper School for my A levels, where my history teacher, Mr Bearman, had a direct influence on my future.

In my second year I decided, rather madly, to switch from history to politics - which meant completing the A level in one year - and he helped me. He was also wholly supportive of my attempts to combine studying and modelling work, helping me to catch up with missed school work.

When I started to bring political thinking into my working practice - for example, on a trip to Botswana I studied the ethics and politics behind a diamond company I was modelling for, and later when I wrote about student fees issues - I sought and learned from his advice.

Mr Bearman impressed on me the idea that issues are never black and white. He always added the word "but ..." and every statement was met with a question from him. So I learned to question everything, and that potentially the truth often sits behind or beyond our immediate judgements. Mr Bearman also had a wonderful, wicked sense of humour and was sympathetic to the fact that I missed nearly half of the time in my second year, writing once: "Don't overdo the 'I'm coping' when you feel you aren't. Ask for extra help, which you fully deserve. Don't feel guilty about missing school or it might spoil your enjoyment of the admirable choice you have made to continue your academic education. Given your opportunities, most teachers would probably give up school altogether."

Mr Bearman had a big impact on my decision to go to university. I hadn't planned to apply as I had been juggling modelling with studying for four years, had just started acting professionally and was loath to enter a period of that conflict again. Mr Bearman wrote me a brilliant, witty letter explaining why I should at least apply to Cambridge. I couldn't argue with it. So I applied to the University of Cambridge and later graduated in art history.

Graham Bearman has retired now, but we are still in touch through text messages. And sometimes he still pops over for a cup of tea.

Lily Cole is an ambassador for Sky Rainforest Rescue, Sky and WWF's partnership to help protect 1 billion trees in the Amazon rainforest. For more information, visit sky.comrainforestrescue


Born: 27 December 1987 in Torquay, Devon

Education: Hallfield Primary School and Latymer Upper School, both in West London

Further education: University of Cambridge, art history degree

Career: Model, actress and environmental activist, including being an ambassador for Sky Rainforest Rescue.

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