Anita Anand

20th June 2008 at 01:00
This mischievous broadcaster loved the tiny nun who saved her from being the naughtiest girl in school
This mischievous broadcaster loved the tiny nun who saved her from being the naughtiest girl in school

My first encounter with Sister Francesca was when she found me in the corridor having been sent out of class for talking. I had a short attention span, was easily distracted and quickly acquired a reputation at Avon House Primary School in Woodford Green, Essex, for being overly chatty and disruptive. I was forever being chucked out of lessons. Sister Francesca would pass me in the corridor, wag her finger and ask: "What have you done?"

She took an interest in my welfare and probably saved me from being one of the naughtiest children in the school by persuading me that there was no point in being difficult. She had a reputation for being strict, but I found her kind. I have never met a teacher since who believed so strongly that excellence could be dragged out of every child.

She was tiny and had dark eyes that darted from behind horn-rimmed specs, which could make her look severe when she was cross. She spoke with an Irish lilt.

Sister Francesca taught music, speech and drama and I remember her coming into the classroom with a huge carpet-bag full of musical instruments. To me, the most special thing in that bag was a silver triangle and when she let me play it, I thought she was the best teacher in the world.

She was extraordinarily talented. She played piano, violin and clarinet and if a child asked to learn a different musical instrument, she would go away and learn it so she could teach them. I once asked her why she had never become a musician and all she would say was: "God had other plans."

I tried to learn guitar, but didn't have the discipline to persevere, so concentrated on singing. Sister Francesca got me singing solos and dragged us all off to take part in local music festivals and poetry-reading competitions like the Von Trapp children. Her ambition for her pupils was incredible. I was confident and outgoing with a competitive streak and volunteered for everything.

She was the only nun on the staff. It wasn't a church school but there were a number of Catholic teachers. Even though my parents were Hindu, there was no religious conflict. I'd sing in a church with the school on a weekday and at the weekend be in the temple.

Sister Francesca also gave moral advice. If I got into a fight she'd say: "If you kick someone, they'll kick you back and then you'll kick again and all that either of you will get out of the argument will be bruises." I still remember one of the little rhymes she taught us: "Be you to others kind and true and always unto others do as you'd have others do to you."

When I went to secondary school, Bancroft's in Woodford Green, I finally knuckled down to my studies and I had some good teachers there, but none stood out like Sister Francesca. I missed her. Sometimes I went back to see her and her first question was always: "Are you being good?"

By then she'd become a grandmother figure to me. We were a small family, only Mum and Dad and my two younger brothers lived in England. Occasionally she would come to tea and my parents always brought out the best china and put on a special meal. We were all fond of her, but I loved her best.

The last time I saw Sister Francesca I told her I was going to be a teacher, which pleased her, but my parents desperately wanted me to become a lawyer. I carried on with the public speaking competitions and writing and went off to study law, but was hooked on journalism and switched to English. My parents didn't find out until my graduation. I never grew out of being a rebel.

Anita Anand is a broadcaster and presents the Drive show on BBC Radio 5 Live. She was talking to Pamela Coleman.

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