My best teacher

Pamela Coleman

Bill Thompson had thick grey hair, wore a gown that looked as though it might disintegrate at any moment, and smelt of Gauloise cigarettes. He looked like a Frenchman, had that Gallic charm and would have been perfectly cast as Simenon's Maigret - yet he came from Carlisle.

He walked around the classroom with his hands in his pockets, relaxed and smiling, talking to us as though we were a group of friends in his house.

He taught A-level French and gave me a fantastic love of French and France, which I still have. He stands out in my memory because as well as being a brilliant teacher, he provided a sense of calm in my fragmented and chaotic school career. My family was constantly moving house because of my father's job (he was an actor who became a clergyman). I was always arriving somewhere at a different stage in the curriculum, just before exams. Though I made superficial friendships, throughout my schooldays I felt an outsider and my teenage years were lonely and desperately unhappy.

There is a peculiar pressure being brought up in a vicarage. You are economically working-class, but socially middle-class because you live in a big house and your father is a social figure. I was not quite accepted and it was unfortunate that almost as soon as I arrived in the sixth form at the White House grammar school in Brampton, Cumbria, I was made head girl, which probably didn't go down very well with the others.

The White House was a small co-ed school in what had been a country house.

Classes were small - there were only 14 in the sixth form and four of us in the A-level French group - so it was like having private tuition. We had a number of set books, but Mr Thompson read much more widely. He read us a lot of French poetry in a lyrical voice and introduced us to the work of Maupassant and Vigny and books such as Balzac's P re Goriot, which isn't easy.

He always explained the background to what we were studying, which gave us an introduction to the French way of thinking, society and life. He played us records of singers such as Edith Piaf, talked about current affairs and told anecdotes about what he had been doing and where he had been. He treated us as equals and expected us to behave as equals.

I was terribly serious for my age and, probably because I was a clergyman's daughter, used to speak out against injustice. I was the only girl in a family of four boys. By the time I was six I had three small brothers, and because my mother was often ill, I had to look after them.

However, I did once get involved in the tail end of a silly end of term prank. A group of sixth-formers dug a trench across the school car park to prevent access and painted "condemned" on the pavement outside. Because we had damaged school property, Mr Thompson took me and the head boy, Roger, down to the police station. Mr Thompson was terribly relaxed, as if what we had done was of no consequence. The policeman took down our names with a wink. A special assembly was called and it was decided that I should be the one to make a public apology. I had to stand up in front of the whole school and apologise to the caretaker and staff. All throughout this Mr Thompson was completely non-condemning and like an adult friend, smiled and said it wasn't the worst thing that ever happened in the world.

Sadly, I didn't keep in touch with him after I left school. I went to Manchester University and read social anthropology. I drifted into teaching and then into journalism. When I became a teacher I took into the classroom with me Mr Thompson's informal technique and, as he did, made a point of listening to what my pupils had to say.

Newsreader Anna Ford was talking to Pamela Coleman


1943 Born in Tewkesbury, Gloucestershire 1946-49 Boot primary, Eskdale 1949-51 St Ursula's RC school, Wigton, Cumberland 1951-54 The National Primary, Wigton 1954-56 Nelson Thomlinson grammar school, Wigton (with Melvyn Bragg) 1956-59 Minehead grammar 1959-62 White House grammar school, Brampton, Cumbria 1963-66 Manchester University 1970-72 Teaches at Rupert Stanley FE college, Belfast 1974 Joins Granada television as a researcher 1978-81 Works for ITN as newsreader 1981 In the founding team of TV-am Good Morning Britain with David Frost, Michael Parkinson, Robert Kee and Angela Rippon 1989 Joins BBC news team April 27, 2006 retires from newsreading for BBC to launch freelance career

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Pamela Coleman

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