Glossy finish

20th June 1997 at 01:00
I was scared of Miss Harris at first, like all the other children at Battle Primary School in Reading. She was a big lady with a red face and a very strong voice - a bit like the actress Peggy Mount - and she taught the top class, the one where you were prepared for the 11-plus exam.

I remember being really frightened of going to school on the first day of the term in which I was to start in Miss Harris's class because of her reputation. She was strict, she didn't stand for any nonsense and nobody larked around in her lessons.

As it turned out, she taught me for two years because she taught the class below the top one when I reached it, and the following year she went back to teaching the 11-plus pupils.

She was a brilliant teacher and, once I got to know her, she wasn't at all frightening.

I'd worked my way through the school with average results, despite being pushed by my parents, until I was taught by Miss Harris. At home I felt important. I lorded it over my younger sister, Gloria, and my cousin,Sheila, who lived with us.

Myparents always considered me to be a bit pushier and a bit cleverer than them. They couldn't understand why my reports always said, "Could do better, could try harder". I didn't shine at school and my parents thought I ought to. My best friend at school, Yvonne Eggers, was a shiner. She was always near the top of the class.

Miss Harrris encouraged me right from the beginning. Soon after I joined her class she called me back as we were going out to break to discuss an essay I'd written. I remember her saying: "You write nicely, but why is it so short? You have a talent for writing, and maybe for many other things, but you've got to work at them if you want to go to grammar school. You've got to work if you want to pass those exams."

Spurred on by her encouragement - and because my friend was doing so well - I suddenly started working hard at school. I couldn't wait to finish the set textbooks and always read on ahead. Miss Harris loved history and literature and they were the subjects I was good at and did well in.

Miss Harris also encouraged my artistic side. I was always quite good at drawing and I loved clothes. My mother was a dress designer, and my sister and I were always well turned out. I enjoyed making clothes for paper dolls but I had no ambitions then to be a designer myself. I wanted to write detective stories when I grew up.

I never knew much about Miss Harris's private life. It was rumoured that she lived with a man which, of course, made her more interesting to us. My parents thought she was wonderful because under her influence I did so much better at school. When they went to parents' evenings and expressed concern that I might not pass my 11-plus, they were delighted to be told "Don't worry, she can do it, I'm getting her through."

Fourteen of us from a class of about 40 passed the 11-plus and went on to Kendrick Grammar School. They were the best results in the town.

Unlike the other teachers, Miss Harris treated her pupils like people, like little adults, and discussed all kinds of things with us. She would talk about love and marriage when we were read-ing things like A Midsummer Night's Dream.

She was a very stimulating teacher who made us think and use our imaginations. She gave me a sense of being able to achieve something in life.

Then she seemed rather elderly to me, but I suppose she must have been in her forties. She wasn't pretty or elegant. She dressed in skirts and shapeless blouses and cardigans, and wore sensible shoes.

Miss Harris realised a facet of my character which was already evident; I always eventually find a way of doing something I can't cope with at first.

We were learning to play the recorder and I couldn't read music - and, being tone deaf, wasn't much good.

But I worked out my own way of reading music by putting little marks on the score so I knew what notes to play. A week after being completely unable to play a tune in class I had mastered it. "That was a buried talent, Janet, " commented Miss Harris. "See, you can work things out if you want to."

After I left school I went back a couple of times to see Miss Harris but she left soon after I did. I would never have got to grammar school without her and, if I hadn't gone to grammar school, I probably wouldn't have gone on to art college and my life might have been very different. Miss Harris saw my potential and somehow made it flourish. I owe her a lot.

Lingerie designer Janet Reger was born in London and brought up in Reading, Berkshire. She has one daughter, Aliza, who works in the family business.

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