Bohemian rhapsody

23rd January 1998 at 00:00
After a good primary education I moved on to Britain's first comprehensive - Holyhead, on Anglesey. The education authority had cobbled four schools together in 1947 and created a mixed comprehensive with 1,300 pupils. The island contained no fee-paying schools, and I remember how nice it was to live in a place where all secondary pupils wore the same uniform.

My favourite teacher, who gave me the passion for literature that has been an important part of my life ever since, was Mrs Hibbard. She taught me for four years and helped me get the best O-level English grade in the school.

She must have been about 35 - not beautiful but very striking. She was quite large with a lot of wavy hair, always smartly made-up and dressed. Her husband was the music teacher.

They came from Yorkshire, I think, and had posh accents. They neither sounded nor behaved like the other teachers and I was fascinated by the terribly cultured life they shared.

I would walk past their house, to see windowsills stacked with books, and think "How Bohemian". We had books at home but not so many that you had to stack them. I imagined the Hibbards listening to music while drinking gin and tonic.

She never wrote on the blackboard, gave pro forma answers or dictated notes. She'd sweep into the classroom, usually carrying just a handbag, and sit down on the desk. Then she would pull up a chair, put her feet on it, and take the set text out of her handbag. I knew she smoked and imagined she would love to have had the play in one hand and a cigarette in the other. That fitted the Bloomsbury-type image I had of her.

Her engagement with the books and with us was magical. It wasn't just a girl thing - she certainly wasn't a Miss Jean Brodie figure - the boys were just as interested as we girls.

If we were doing 19th-century novelists, her teaching would always have a political slant. She was left-wing, and taught me to look beyond the text, to consider the social and political context.

Mrs Hibbard knew such a lot about history and the arts. On a Monday she might tell us about a London concert or art exhibition she'd been to at the weekend - my eyes would be on stalks at such sophistication. My family tended to stay at home.

She hated the formality of analysis and precis. She could not see why students had to deal so rigorously with subordinate clauses and the like.

She certainly wouldn't be regarded as a model teacher today, and there must have been some disapproval of her methods. But her lessons had an underlying discipline and she would counter criticism with good results. She allowed debate and dialogue, and didn't mind how we sat or arranged our desks. But she always had silence when she wanted it.

I hadn't kept in touch after leaving school, but in 1983, I gave an interview and mentioned her. She saw it and got in touch. I was glad I had that chance to tell her about the impact she'd had, because soon afterwards she died.

There's a successful female barrister in London who remembers me teaching her in radical ways I learned from Mrs Hibbard. It's nice to know your pupils haven't forgotten you.

Glenys Kinnock, politician and author, taught in primary, secondary and special schools from 1966 until 1994, when she was elected MEP for South Wales East. Her books include 'By Faith and Daring', a collection of interviews with British women, and 'Could Do Better: Where is Britain in the European Education League Tables?' She was talking to Daniel Rosenthal

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