Anne Fine

16th May 2008 at 01:00
Quick-fire maths questions and intense Spanish discussions from a frightening but impressive teacher kept this author on her toes
Quick-fire maths questions and intense Spanish discussions from a frightening but impressive teacher kept this author on her toes

Mrs Gee, my maths and Spanish teacher, was an unforgettable lady with a shock of white hair that floated like a cloud. She was frightening, intellectual, impressive and absolutely inspirational. Many of my teachers at Northampton School for Girls were passionate about their subjects, but she really stood out.

No time was ever wasted. As soon as the bell rang we would hear Mrs Gee's footstep on the bottom stair and her saying something like: "Number One: 7x149". Frantically we would scramble for pen and paper. Having practically delivered a daily test before even entering the classroom, she would then call out the answers from her desk, each question lodged firmly in her mind.

Mrs Gee would tell us endless stories (in Spanish) about Spain, its customs and quirks of language. She'd talk about "duende" - its "dark soul", and play Cante Jondo records. About eight years after I had left the school I found one of these. It bore a label: "Please return at once to Lydia Mary Gee"; so without hesitation, I found myself jumping into the car.

Our Spanish lessons were intense since we studied for A-level in two years - from scratch. Nevertheless, Mrs Gee retained her high standards. I remember writing an essay in Spanish about Federico Garcia Lorca, the poet, after deciding to change my handwriting so every "e" became "?" throughout. Her only response to all three pages was simply: "Que dejas esta afectacion de la? Griega!" ("Please drop this affectation of the Greek!")

I have always loved language and feel I was given a first class grounding in the tools of my trade. Miss Morgan, my English teacher taught me not to be sloppy and I loved her lessons because we read and wrote about so many classics. Whether I wrote an essay in Spanish, French or English, my teachers always corrected every error. Now, when I write, it's as if their ghosts are behind me, red pens poised.

Reading my novel The Tulip Touch, most children assume that I identify with Natalie who tells the story, but I actually feel an affinity for Tulip who is hostile and tense and out of control. I feel I might so easily have been like her if I'd not been to such a safe and disciplined school.

I was an anxious, clever and imaginative child, biting my fingernails till they bled, but my school provided a track to control nervous energy. If I'd had Tulip's grim background, who knows what might have happened?

Our teachers took an extraordinary interest in our individual talents and could not have offered a better education. I loved books and gained a sense of my own skills. Philip Larkin, the poet, said you should write the novels you most want to read, but no one has bothered to write for you. By writing only for me (me at five, me at 13, me as an adult) I please myself and hope the readers will enjoy it.

Anne Fine OBE is a former children's laureate and one of the most successful children's authors of the past two decades. She has been awarded the Carnegie Medal twice; the Whitbread Children's Book of the Year Award twice; the Smarties Book Prize and the Guardian Children's Fiction Prize. She was talking to Paula Barnett.

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