Jackie Bird

14th October 2011 at 01:00
French lessons packed a punch - and a flying blackboard duster or two - during the newsreader's schooldays

I suppose my favourite teacher would have to be Tommy Gilligan, who was my French teacher. He was charismatic, eccentric, inspirational, and there were a lot of flying blackboard dusters that would probably have him up before the board these days.

Mr Gilligan was a former university boxer, school of hard knocks and all that. If anyone was not paying attention, they would find the duster making its way to them through the air. He would use the blackboard stick as a lance, he would tell us stories of his wild times in France as a student.

He was small, pugilistic, had tight, tight curly hair, and a boxer's nose that had been bashed many times. He taught me on and off for most of my school career and he was a strict disciplinarian who would take on the rowdiest pupil and sort them out. These were mixed ability classes in first and second year, so there were people who struggled with "oui" and "non". He just didn't take any nonsense from them and was hugely entertaining.

It inspired a huge interest in French. Strange things stick in my mind. He taught us how to say "oui" in a slang way that wouldn't mark us out as an English speaker. Rather than say "I have no money", he taught us phrases like "I am skint". He taught us the colloquial French that meant as a young adult I marched off to Paris to try to practise what I thought was my fantastic French. It sadly wasn't, but I tried.

Because I was a grafter, he took me under his wing, and when I knew I wanted to go into journalism, he wrote to various university friends he had had in the dark ages who were working in the media to try and get me an introduction.

These were the days pre-work experience. I was a working-class girl from a council house in Hamilton, so the prospect of my parents knowing anyone of influence was remote, non-existent. So he was a chap who tried to help me out in whatever way he could.

I took away a confidence, because there was someone in a position of influence and intelligence who believed in me, who believed I might have a bit of intelligence and a bit of a future. I don't think you can give anyone in your class a greater gift. I would like him to know that I was grateful for the personal encouragement and language inspiration, that he was highly entertaining and it brightened up the school day.

I was very, very hard-working throughout my school career. I wasn't naturally academic or bright, but my God, I worked at it. I had to be forcibly stopped from studying for exams by my parents. I was brought up to do the very best that you could possibly do, a huge work ethic.

I didn't find any of the subjects easy; I had to work at everything. Maths I found particularly difficult, and I was the bane of the maths teacher's life, because there was that mix of the work ethic and a lot of confidence. When I didn't understand it - there are people who sit at the back of the class and hide - my hand would always go up.

So it became a ritual in my maths class: "Does everyone understand this?" "Yes?" Pause. "Even Jackie?" And I would nod and there would be a great sigh of relief, and we could move on. But if I didn't, we would be there for the whole period.

I thoroughly enjoyed English. There were some super teachers, and I loved the drama of prose. I don't think people who don't come from that sort of a working-class background realise. Going to school meant being faced with a whole new world of poetry and prose and Shakespeare and drama, because those books were not in the house, those books were not on the television screen at home.

Jackie Bird was talking to Julia Belgutay

Personal profile

Born: Hamilton, 1962

Education: Udston Primary, Hamilton; Earnock High, Hamilton

Career: Journalist and BBC Scotland newsreader.

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