Jenny Agutter

2nd May 2008 at 01:00
A geography teacher who unfurled her subject as though it were a great colourful, magical map awakened a life-long love of travel for this actress
A geography teacher who unfurled her subject as though it were a great colourful, magical map awakened a life-long love of travel for this actress

I have many things to thank my parents for but, if I'm honest, I do sometimes wonder about their decision to entrust my secondary education to Elmhurst School for Dance.

Presumably, they chose it partly because, at that time, it was in Camberley, and had close ties to Sandhurst. My dad was a brigadier and many of the girls at the school had Army backgrounds like mine.

Perhaps, too, they simply thought I'd like the school and be happy there. And I admit that at the age of 11 the prospect did seem marvellous: an all girls' ballet school in the middle of the Surrey countryside. It was just too thrillingly Bunty magazine for words.

In the event, however, although many former Elmhurst pupils have done extremely well, I have always felt a little short-changed by my education. I'm sure there's no comparison between the Elmhurst of now and then.

Today, it is in Edgbaston, is affiliated to the Birmingham Royal Ballet and has exacting standards, not just in dance but in all subjects. But, sadly, in my day it wasn't thought necessary to teach us physics or chemistry. Maths was taught only to the most basic level. Even in English, no one thought to worry our little heads with Shakespeare.

Later, when I lived in Los Angeles in my twenties and thirties, I taught underprivileged children from the strife-torn Watts area of the city. We helped them decipher Shakespeare and to see his relevance to their own lives. "Do you see what's happening in Julius Caesar? The politics and manipulation? Look at the love and lust in Romeo and Juliet." These kids got so excited by Shakespeare; I wish I'd had that at Elmhurst.

For all that, the school did have its saving graces, and when the teaching was good it was very good. My art teacher was quite mad, although oddly inspirational. She'd flounce into the studio, a palm to her forehead saying, "Oh girls. Black day. Black day." But then we'd get down to work and she was quite brilliant.

On reflection, I suppose there was something eccentric about most of the teachers, including Miss Wakelin, my favourite of all. Like so many of the staff, she was a spinster and not in the first flush of youth. But she still dressed every day as though she might bump into the man of her dreams. She had long, vermillion fingernails, which I found fascinating, and big bouffant hair.

She also had a range of catchphrases for every situation. If you were falling short in lessons, she'd look you in the eye and say in a posh and ponderous accent: "Now, you and I are going to fall out if you don't pull up your little cotton socks."

On the other hand, if you were doing well and making an effort, she took the most enormous interest in you and would pull out all the stops.

She also knew what every good teacher understands; that you get so much more out of pupils by showing them that they can do something rather than making them feel that they cannot. A good teacher nurtures and encourages confidence; a bad teacher destroys it.

Miss Wakelin taught geography: not one of the glamorous subjects, but she taught with such humour, passion and even theatricality that you couldn't help but be drawn in.

It was without question Miss Wakelin's teaching that awakened my interest in the planet and broadened my horizons, quite literally.

We would look at the causes of earthquakes and droughts or explore the rituals of different cultures. She unfurled her subject in front of us as though it were a great colourful and magical map.

Even now, decades later, I still remember everything that I learnt in Miss Wakelin's lessons; a tribute to the efficiency of her teaching. I'm sure that my love of travel today has a great deal to do with her.

I have no idea what happened to her after I left Elmhurst. I never saw her again. But I know that when it came to choosing schools for my now 17-year-old son, Jonathan, I always hoped that there would be at least one teacher a bit like her. I looked too, of course, for the things that I had missed out on myself

Jenny Agutter, 55, began her career as a child actress in the TV series and later movie adaptation of E. Nesbit's The Railway Children. Other parts have included an Emmy winning performance in The Snow Goose and roles in Nicholas Roeg's Walkabout and An American Werewolf in London. She now stars in a new BBC comedy drama series, The Invisibles. The show starts on May 1 at 9pm. She was talking to Daphne Lockyer

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