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A noble body

My life has been a series of best teachers. From day one there were always people who encouraged and stimulated me, which was lucky because we were poor and my mother could barely speak English. She was Italian, and we were first-generation immigrants. She was a widow and had to work very hard.

My sisters and brother and I used to help her at the weekend, making ice cream in our garage which she would sell in her little cafe in the church. We were brought up on the outside of society, and at a very early age we realised you have to work for everything you get. The first teacher who made an impression on me was Sister Immaculata Conception at St Joseph's Convent in Littlehampton, West Sussex. She gave me my kick-start into social action as she lived and breathed the message of compassion and was always looking after tramps.

When in 1953 I moved on to Maude Allen Secondary Modern, after failing my 11-plus, it was Miss Springham. She loved teaching and understood that what really intrigued me was the literature of poverty and social justice. She allowed me to read whatever I wanted in that genre, from John Steinbeck to William Faulkner. She opened my life to American literature. We didn't have any books in our house, and my mother was worried because I read too much. She used to say books would "hurt your brain". Soon even she began to realise I was a prolific reader and started giving me books, but because she couldn't speak English there was no editing and I often ended up with soft porn.

Every Friday Miss Springham organised a formal debate on a variety of topics such as capital punishment. She instructed us in the rituals of debating.

I remember her having loads of energy. She used similes and metaphors to help us understand literature and was always saying: "Imagine it to be like this.'' She brought it into the present.

Miss Springham was short, but she wore the most amazing turquoise blue eyeshadows and pale orange lipstick. She was flamboyant, and although we knew she lived at home with her mother we were always searching for her enigmatic boyfriend.

She was extremely vibrant and, even if she was never aware of it, she taught me a love of language. She was very intimate with us and even used the swearword "bloody''. We thought we were really grown up.

I always knew she was particularly proud of me, because when anyone came to visit the school I was dragged out of lessons to read to them. She gave me self-esteem and a sense of comfort about my own character which stayed with me.

Our school was part of an experiment. It was one of the first secondary moderns to do O-levels. About 20 of us were cherry-picked and told we were allowed to do GCE. I think that when you are told you're "remarkable" like that, you wear that mantle for the rest of your life.

At 15 I decided I wanted to be an actress, and applied to the Central School of Music and Drama. I can't remember if I was accepted, but my mother was advised not to let me go. Then I thought, if I can't perform on the stage I can perform in the classroom so I trained as a teacher at Newton Park College. There, Eric Wainwright taught me history and was my teaching supervisor. He made history come alive and made it relevant in a social context instead of something purely determined by wars. There was always a sense of adventure with him.

For a while after I finished my training course I went back to Maude Allen to teach creative writing and history, but I felt uncomfortable in the staffroom. I was also barely numerate because, in order to maximise our results at GCE, we hadn't been allowed to do science or maths.

Later I taught at a school in Southampton where I gave some rather odd lessons. While we were studying the First World War, I took a group to the Somme to see what it was like to sleep in the trenches; when we studied the Fire of London we built a replica of the city and set fire to it in the playground. In my opinion teaching is about experiences. While I was at school, there was such a sense of curiosity and what was important was teaching children to look for the information rather than learning it by rote. I loved every minute of my education, and to this day I live my life by what my teachers would think of it. I find myself doing everything for them.

Anita Roddick is the founder and chief executive officer of The Body Shop, with 1,600 shops in 47 countries. She recently helped set up the New Academy of Business, an educational charity offering management courses including a masters degree in business and social responsibility run in partnership with Bath University. The Littlehampton factory is open to schools and the public during holidays and term time. Contact: 01903 844044

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