Constance Briscoe

8th February 2008 at 00:00
A teacher told the woman who went on to become one of the first black female judges that she could do anything providing she had a good education.

Miss K was definitely my best teacher at Sacred Heart Roman Catholic Secondary Modern in Camberwell, south London. Her real name was Miss Korchezenski and she taught me office practice, typewriting, commerce and economics from the age of 12 to about 14. She was Polish and spoke with a very strong accent. I would have said that she was in her late 40s. As a single woman, she had no children. She told me she had always wanted to have children, but the opportunity never arose. She wore twin sets and tweed skirts.

She had been in a concentration camp when she was younger and so she was a serious woman. You'd never get her telling a joke. What she did was make it very clear to me that I could do anything I wanted, providing I had a good education. So when I told her I wanted to be a lawyer, she said the only person who would stop me was myself.

This was untypical advice coming from my school because we hadn't had that many people go to university. There were only three of us that went on to further education from my year. When I told my careers adviser that I wanted to become a lawyer, she said that I should remember that this was the Sacred Heart School and it did not produce lawyers. I was encouraged to fill out application forms for Boots and Woolworths. I was told my dreams should have boundaries.

I took refuge in my school work because life at home was so bad. I thought that it was essential to do well at school. It never crossed my mind not to do my homework or to make excuses. I thought that education would be a road forward.

There was encouragement from my father, but he did not live at home. He always thought that I should stay on at school and get my qualifications and continue as far as I could. My mother thought that the sooner I left school and got myself a job, the better. She thought homework was something that got in the way of me doing housework.

I knew what I wanted to do and that I needed to pass my exams. Miss K inspired me. She knew that I had issues with my mother and on one occasion while falling ill at school I refused to go home. It was agreed that I would stay with Miss K until I came to my senses.

I lived in her flat for a few weeks until she decided that she was going to Poland for the summer holidays. Only then did I go to my mother's house.

Unfortunately during those holidays, she lost a leg in a car accident. When she returned, she told me that if I continued to live with her, she would only hold me back because she needed looking after.

She came back to school for a term, but then we heard there were problems with her other leg and we were told to pray for her. We never saw her again.

What I liked about her was that we worked together as a team. We got on really well. I could talk to her. She understood what I was about without prying - without asking questions that I didn't want to answer. She was stern, but not severe. She was always the teacher and I was always the pupil and there was a lot of respect there.

Constance Briscoe is a barrister and part-time judge. She documented her childhood in her bestselling memoir Ugly. Her latest book Beyond Ugly is published by Hodder Stoughton, pound;14.99. She was speaking to Sheryl Simms.

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