Skip to main content

My best teacher

I went to Penge Secondary Modern school for girls in south London. The headmistress was called Miss Bowles. She was a big woman, with a friendly face, big bosom and a small waist. She always wore a white or a blue blouse, grey skirt and lace-up shoes, and she always had a hanky tucked in her waist.

She was strict but giving. You looked up to her like a mother figure and you had to treat her with respect - when she came into the room you had to stand up. She instilled that kind of behaviour in us. She had this air of authority. I can still see her walking round the school and I can still feel her presence in my life.

I remember when Winston Churchill died, the whole school had to stop and she made us all come into the hall and watch his funeral on the television.She told us this was a great man who had died. She taught us to respect the establishment and things of the past and to respect people who have paved the way for you. In that way she made us realise we had to pave the way for those coming behind us. It's like that song - "The Greatest Love of All" - "I believe that children are our future, teach them well and let them lead the way". She certainly taught us well.

She chose her teachers well. I can remember all of them. Because of Miss Bowles's influence the teachers knew they were there to serve us. They knew that and they wanted us to succeed. It was terribly important for her that she gave us a solid foundation for when we left school.

There was nothing we weren't exposed to or couldn't do. She got Peggy Spencer to come along to teach us how to dance. She arranged for us to go to Heathrow Airport to visit the air traffic control tower. We went along to the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday mornings to listen to the orchestras rehearsing. The local driving school would teach sixth-formers how to drive in the playground. At the time I didn't really appreciate it but now I realise we were really lucky. Children at a secondary modern school didn't expect to be taken to these places.

I didn't understand what the 11-plus was all about. Other children whose parents knew what to expect had coached them, but most children who took it didn't know what hit them. I came out thinking "what have I done?" I was lucky because many children didn't get what Miss Bowles gave us. That's what made her special, and that's what made me partly what I am today. We had computers and calculators before a lot of other schools and we had a good music department. My sister got a scholarship to music college, which was virtually unheard of from a school like that.

I don't think Miss Bowles was married so the girls were terribly important in her life and she wanted the best for them. There was a touch of Miss Jean Brodie about her.

Because I was captain of the netball and athletics teams, I got to know her a bit better than the others. She used to say: "who's the girl with the big smile?" because I have a face that smiles all the time. She wanted us to have confidence.

She was a woman of vision. I sometimes think she should have been the secretary of state for education, or perhaps she should have been something better in her time so more children could have benefited.

When I first came to England from Trinidad I had to face a life I wasn't prepared for. People treated me as if I was different, and would say nasty and negative things to me. Having to deal with that as a young child was difficult. But Miss Bowles helped me through many things in life.

I remember one of the head girls at school - I think her name was Bernie or Bernice - was from Trinidad. She was a tall, thin, brown-skinned girl. The majority of girls in the school were white but they all looked up to her, and Miss Bowles chose her to be head girl. She believed everyone was important and she wouldn't keep you down because of your colour. It was wonderful to have a school life like that.

I loved school - they were the best days of my life. I'm going to a school reunion soon and Miss Bowles will be there. I hope she looks the same.

Floella Benjamin presented the children's programmes 'Play School' and 'Playaway' in the 1970s. She now runs her own television production company. Her childhood memoirs 'Coming to England' are published by Puffin,price Pounds 4.99. She was talking to Harvey McGavin

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