Skip to main content

My best teacher

The difference between Sister Philomena and other teachers was that she was in love not only with her God and her vocation, but also with her subject.

Sister Mary Philomena was beefy, red-faced, Welsh and short-tempered, and she had bad teeth. She taught me singing at St Michael's convent in north Finchley. Music was compulsory and Sister Philomena's attitude was that God had given everybody a voice and, although she sometimes could not imagine why He wanted to hear some of the sounds people made, if it was the voice God gave you, then that's what He wanted to hear. You raised it and you sang, and you damn well sang in tune. She'd play a phrase on the piano and make you sing it, and use the ruler on your knuckles if you didn't get it right.

She would take a whole class and enter them in north London choral competitions, and sometimes win, which was amazing, as there was no selection and we included people like me who were tone deaf.

In spite of the ruler and the harshness if we sang out of tune, we adored her. I learned to listen to music and to sing in tune. But more than that, she taught me how to handle talent and the lack of it. She was inspirational. I have remembered her attitude when I am teaching. It's easy to say: "You can't really do this", but the best teachers don't give up.

I learned when I was teaching what is now called creative writing that those who have no natural talent must not be allowed to opt out. Everybody can do in the end what they want or need to do, to a much greater extent than we give them credit for - if they keep trying and if someone has faith in them.

The difference between Sister Philomena and other teachers was that she was in love not only with her God and with her vocation, but also with her subject. She adored music. She had a lovely voice, deep, vibrant, powerful, mezzo, perhaps. I remember she loved to sing Schubert's ode to music, "Du Holde Kunst". In class, we sang fusty folk songs and pop classics, and a great deal of plainsong because we sang at mass every week.

I didn't keep in touch with Sister Philomena. She was in late middle age when I was a child and will long since have gone to sing in the heavenly choirs. I went to talk to the sixth form a few years ago, which was an odd experience. The school had changed a lot.

Two of my contemporaries and I were the first girls from the school to get into university for at least 10 years. There was a feeling that it was a dangerous thing to be clever; thinking might cause you to question the faith. Worse than being ungodly, it was unmaidenly. When I got into Oxford they offered a mass for my soul. They were right; I got into difficulties and left the church.

I went to St Anne's to read English and became a teacher for a while. In those days, women stopped work when they had a family, and I stopped teaching to have my three children. I began writing almost immediately because I found being at home boring, and I desperately missed the children I had been teaching. In particular, I missed the less able ones - those who needed careful handling and who had been very rewarding to teach. I wanted to write for children like them. The book was Hengest's Tale, the first of 30 children's stories I have written.

Sister Philomena hasn't crept into any of my books in person, but in attitude she has - this feeling that a thing is always worth doing. If you do something well, you get lots of satisfaction, but if you can't do it well, it's worth doing it as well as you can. That approach enabled me to write a book.

Author Jill Paton Walsh was talking to Pamela Coleman


1937 Born in London

1942-55 St Michael's convent, north London

1955-59 Studies English at Oxford, followed by diploma in education

1959-62 Teaches at Enfield girls' grammar

1966 First children's book, Hengest's Tale, published

1978-86 Visiting professor of children's literature, Boston, US

1986 First adult novel, Lapsing, published

1994 Knowledge of Angels shortlisted for Booker Prize

1996 Awarded CBE

1998 Completes Dorothy L Sayers's unfinished novel, Thrones, Dominations

2000 A Desert in Bohemia published

2001 A Desert in Bohemia appears in paperback (Black Swan)

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