Francesca Martinez

22nd July 2011 at 01:00
The award-winning comedian says her first headteacher gave her the springboard to succeed in Grange Hill and beyond

I had this awful PE teacher at high school, who forced me to play table tennis. She kept going "Francesca, it's all in your head. Be positive". So I spent the entire time picking the ball off the floor. She treated me like I was a lazy and didn't want to do sport. But I have cerebral palsy. I used to go: "I'm brain-damaged, Miss".

From a young age I knew I didn't want to be pitied. I was confident and had a loving family. I felt capable. I thought if I made people laugh or was cheeky they wouldn't pity me. I used to forget what I couldn't do. I loved the game where you ring doorbells and run away. I just forgot I couldn't run away.

Pam Thomas, the headteacher at my primary school, was lovely. I saw her today because she is retiring after 34 years at the school. I have very fond memories of her. She treated all the kids as if they were her own, as if she really cared about them.

You felt she knew every child individually - what you were good at, what you needed help with. The whole school made you feel loved. I never felt judged on my disability. I had a lot of friends there. There was a lovely ethos that everyone was equal and welcome. It came from Mrs Thomas at the top.

The teachers looked at kids' needs. My handwriting was messy, for instance, and I used to get frustrated. So they got me this big, old- fashioned typewriter. We had a game called traffic lights, where the teacher would shout "green" and you'd run, and "red" and you'd stop. Running wasn't my strong point, so they got me to shout the colours. It was sweet. Their heart was in the right place.

It made me a big fan of integrated education. Some people need specific support. But if young children are exposed to difference at an early age, they accept it and see the benefits of diversity.

Kids are in special schooling because of what they can't do. But we all have things we can't do. Disabled people just have things that are more visible.

My parents fought to keep me in the mainstream and although my high school years weren't easy, I wouldn't swap them. I never felt defined by what I couldn't do.

My school years were in stark contrast: primary school was fantastic; high school was a shock. The older we get, the more nervous we become about difference. In your teenage years, there's so much pressure to fit in.

I don't think I had a rough time just because I was wobbly. I was different in many ways. We had no TV because our parents wanted us to form our own opinions. I'd been a tomboy, too, and all my friends had been boys.

But my parents worried about sending me to a mixed school because teenage boys might be rough and knock me over. So they got me into an all-girls school.

If a boy doesn't like you he'll pick a fight, so you know. These girls were nice to your face and awful behind your back. I missed the male influence.

Then, when I was 14, I got a part in Grange Hill. The girls were flabbergasted - I was considered very uncool. Until then, I'd thought that if you treat people nicely, they'll treat you nicely back. Big mistake! Grange Hill taught me to stand up for myself.

But it was Mrs Thomas and her school that gave me the confidence to get through high school, weather that tough period and come out stronger at the end.

Francesca Martinez, an award-winning "wobbly" comedian, is performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, August 5-28. She was talking to Douglas Blane


Born: London, 1978

Education: Malorees Junior School, Parliament Hill School

Career: Acted for several years in Grange Hill while still at school; performed stand-up around the world; guest on The Frank Skinner Show; starred in Extras.

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