My best teacher

Mary McCarney

A lively English teacher with a strong sense of humour recognised talent in the rebellious girl who became a best-selling crime writer

My first school was the Holy Cross Catholic primary in Thurrock, which was fabulous. I loved school right up to senior school, but from then on I absolutely hated the regime. I was expelled from my convent school at 12 when I was caught reading The Betsy by Harold Robbins. It was a paperback, and when the nun picked it up, it fell open on all the rude bits (that was our sex education in those days). She said, "What do you think you're doing?" I said, "Well, I'm finding this one more interesting than The Carpetbaggers."

After the convent (where I'd felt I couldn't move) I attended Aveley school in South Ockendon, Thurrock, Essex, and just sort of went wild; smoking, drinking - I was terrible. I gave them so much grief over the years. I remember once I was accused of flooding the toilets. I said, "It couldn't have been me - I was playing truant that day."

I could never resist saying something bad, and it always got me into trouble. I could forge anybody's mum's signature. I'd charge three cigarettes and write notes to get kids a day off, or excused from games.

But there was one teacher who could get through to me. Miss Jones was my English teacher. She was very attractive with reddish-blond hair. She wore beautiful blouses which were almost Victorian-looking, quite Boho I suppose, in a very sedate way. She had lovely, kind eyes and a great sense of humour and fun, but she could still keep us in order. Everybody liked her. Her lessons always included a lively debate - she wasn't telling us, she was asking us what we thought.

I remember Miss Jones came into the toilets one day, and she took the cigarette out of my mouth and flushed it down the loo. She said, "You could be anything you want to be, but you're just wasting it." If any of the other teachers had said that, I'd have told them where to go, but never Miss Jones. She understood me; she knew I was just a bit of a rebel. She encouraged me to write, to express myself, and she wasn't shocked by anything. I behaved for her, and she was a great mentor to me.

It only takes one person in education to make a big difference, and Miss Jones helped me think things out in my own mind. She gave me the confidence to make my own decisions and believe in myself.

I did actually think of Miss Jones many years later, when I was running creative writing workshops at Belmarsh and Holloway prisons. Yes, I certainly had a captive audience (I think some of them would have liked to play truant), but I did try to make the classes as interesting as possible.

That's what I took from Miss Jones - to have a laugh and make writing fun.

Last year, I was doing a book signing, and Miss Jones came along. We didn't actually discuss my books, but she did say that she was proud of me.

And that made me cry Martina Cole is a best-selling, award-winning crime novelist. Her latest novel Close was published last month. She was talking to Mary McCarney

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Mary McCarney

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