Skip to main content

Miss Smith had a problem with her throat, but was able to control 38 kids by whispering in a threatening manner

I wish I'd had one special teacher, someone who would have been a mentor. I think it would have helped me enormously to have had a teacher who encouraged creative writing. Most of my English teachers were more occupied with teaching the syllabus. There was a great deal of comprehension and received wisdom in literature, whereby we read texts and were then told what to think of them, and practical stuff such as writing letters.

I went to an all-girls' school, Wakefield high, on a bursary. I had a number of good teachers, but I learned a lot of things outside the classroom. For instance, we all had to go outside at break, whatever the weather, so I volunteered to tidy the old book room, which was full of texts that had been abandoned because they were unsuitable or old-fashioned or, in some cases, downright pornographic. I managed to spin out the tidying for the whole winter and spent my time reading.

There was a history teacher called Miss Hardcastle who was dynamic and creative. When she wasn't teaching history, she would talk to us about her own interests: mythology, sociology, culture and civilisation. She was also good at making dull topics rather interesting. Miss Hardcastle was tall and slim and looked a bit like Sigourney Weaver. She was a brisk, no-nonsense kind of person and extremely good at depressing pretension. In those days it was common for teachers simply to dictate notes for the entire lesson, but she never did that. If she'd been an English teacher, she would definitely have been a big influence.

I had a sweet Latin teacher called Miss Smith, who looked like Margaret Rutherford. She had a problem with her throat and couldn't speak in a normal voice, but was able to control 38 kids just by peering at them and whispering in a threatening manner. One day, I fixed a bright green fluffy frog I'd won on a shooting range to the blackboard with a system of pulleys, so that when I pulled the string the frog would appear above the board and wave. Poor Miss Smith, with her back to the board, didn't understand why everyone was laughing. Eventually, of course, she caught me and made me conjugate "Yonder frog is very amusing" in a number of tenses.

I detested French because, having a French mother and speaking and reading French at home, I already knew the language. I was unruly in lessons because I desperately wanted to be thrown out. Mrs Wigglesworth, who taught me for several years, had no sense of humour. But, in retrospect, I feel slightly sorry for her because I was a deeply troublesome pupil.

There was a rigid uniform, which even dictated what colour your knickers were (navy in winter, sky blue in summer). I only wore uniform knickers for games, when I put them on top of my normal ones. I was constantly losing them and on lost property day this pair of school knickers with my name on would keep turning up and, deeply embarrassed, I would have to step forward and claim them.

When I moved to sixth-form college, it was a teacher who ran creative writing sessions who was most helpful. Mr Northern would read my work and discuss it, and he encouraged me without making me complacent. He taught me structure and started me writing short stories. I remember writing one about fox hunting from the point of view of the fox.

I've kept in touch with Mr Northern and sent him copies of my books. I also send copies to my primary school teacher, Mr Middleton, who was a big influence when I was eight or nine. I wrote a story called "Flesh Eating Warriors of the Forbidden Mountain", for which he gave me a star. I got my best friend to copy it out several times and we sold the copies and bought sweets with the proceeds.

Author Joanne Harris was talking to Pamela Coleman

The story so far

1964 Born Barnsley 1969-75 Wilthorpe school, Barnsley 1975-80 Wakefield girls' high school 1980-82 Barnsley sixth-form college 1982-85 Studies modern and medieval languages a St Catherine's College, Cambridge 1987 Teacher training at Sheffield University 1989 First book, The Evil Seed, published 1990-99 Teaches French at Leeds grammar school 1999 Publication of Chocolat, made into Oscar-nominated film starring Juliette Binoche and Johnny Depp. Other novels include Blackberry Wine, Five Quarters of the Orange, coastliners and Holy Fools October 1, 2005 Publication of latest novel, Gentlemen and Players

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you