In the grand design

5th September 1997 at 01:00
I was a very boring and studious child and a huge swot. I loved school and always wanted to be top of the class. My two best friends and I used to sit in the front row. We liked doing our homework and took it in turns to come top.

My mother was always very encouraging. She was a teacher at art college while my father was a lorry driver. I didn't ever discuss my school work with him because I thought he wasn't interested and, according to all my mother's family, she had married below herself. We lived in a little terraced house in Chatham, Kent, and there were always artistic things around.

I failed my 11-plus because I was so slow and meticulous, and I went to Napier Road Secondary Modern for two years. That was the only school I hated. I didn't want to be there so I worked really hard so I would pass my 13-plus.

Once I passed I went to Chatham Technical School for Girls. I had two favourite teachers there - Miss Ryan, who taught history, and Miss Peacock, who taught biology.

I used to meet Miss Ryan at the bus stop and carry her bag up the hill. She was very tall, wore great big glasses and had hair like mad wire wool. She loved her subject and filled the margins of my book with her tiny writing, but I could barely read it.

Miss Peacock was about 50. She wore wrinkly stockings with socks over the top and lots of people made fun of her and said she was a bony, old woman. But I didn't care what she looked like. The school was freezing and she wanted to keep warm. I understood that.

She used to come into the class and say: "Today we're doing reproduction. " She would rub her hands together in excitement. She revelled in it.

She made biology very interesting. She was always doing lovely drawings of plants cut in half to show us photosynthesis.

There was another biology teacher who taught us the human side and she hated me. When I selected the subject for O-level, I was called into the head and asked why I wanted to do it. I said I liked Miss Peacock and she had encouraged me. I got 95 per cent in my final exam.

I truly believe that encouragement is the key and a good teacher is one who can see a pupil's potential. Most subjects are interesting but someone has to lead you into the adventure and that's what Miss Peacock did for me.

I knew I was good at art because it was the only lesson in which I didn't have to work hard. From school I went on to Rochester College of Art where I studied lino cutting, pottery, architecture, drawing and composition.

At my school girls were expected to go on to univ-ersity - art college was considered to be a step down. but I loved art.

Now, thinking back, I'm very pleased I went to a girls' secondary school because I found it difficult to mix with boys, even once I got to college.

I remember one day at college when a teacher asked us to name the three types of columns and I called out: "Doric, Ionic and Corinthian." All the boys at the back went "Ugh!". I would have found that very difficult to handle earlier on in my life.

While I was at school, I thought the art of a teacher was to make the subject exciting, but by the time I went to art college I wanted the teacher to be exciting too.

Barbara Brown, our printed textiles teacher at Rochester, was amazing. She was exotic and a bit Bohemian and I remember her telling us: "If you want to go to the Royal College of Art I will teach you what you need to know to get in."

That was the power of a teacher, we believed her and didn't think to question her. She had told us we were capable of getting in, so we believed it. We had to do the homework she'd set us and follow every-thing she said. She warned us that if we went into textiles there might not be any work for us - but we weren't doing it for the money.

She was a tough teacher and set us lots of work to do at the weekend. But I was going out with a boy in the class so the two of us worked together towards getting into the Royal College. About 200 people applied that year for nine places, but we both got in. All my teachers gave me a belief in myself. I don't think I ever missed a day of school, just like I would never have a day off now - I hate the idea of having to catch up.

Zandra Rhodes opened her first business printing textiles nearly 30 years ago . She soon moved into fashion and established herself as one of Britain's most innovative designers. Her clients have included Princess Diana and her creations are on show in major museums around the world. She is now creating the Zandra Rhodes Museum of Fashion and Textiles near London Bridge which is due to open in autumn 1998

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