Margaret Atwood

12th October 2007 at 01:00
A sarcastic English teacher spotted the potential in this best-selling author, even though she didn't understand her pupil's poems.

Miss Bessie Billings taught me English at Leaside High School in Toronto in the crucial two years before I sat my final exams the ones that determined whether I got a university place.

She had an MA that gave her credentials, at least in the eyes of the boys in my class. But the girls also respected wardrobes and she had a respectable wardrobe. It was a better wardrobe than the other teachers, with much better shoes. She used to sit on top of her desk I think so we could see her shoes. They were invariably impeccable and gleaming.

She was quite famous. Years later people would ask: "Did you have Bessie Billings at school?" She had a very high success rate with her pupils. As a good teacher she knew how to teach pupils to pass exams and at the same time share her love of literature.

The love of her literary life was Thomas Hardy and she used to come over to visit his home country. Luckily for Miss Bessie that's what we called her Hardy was featured in the exam syllabus.

She could be very sarcastic but usually only if someone was not listening to her. Teachers in those days had a way of saying to pupils: "If you are talking in class, let's all hear it, let's all here what you are saying." They would then find the talkative pupils had very little to say. But although she could be cutting there was a lot of twinkling in her eyes. Luckily she had a sense of humour. I showed her one of my poems. She said: "I don't understand it so it must be good." I think that was a pretty cunning thing to say.

She advised me to get a place at Victoria College at Toronto University. The university had a tradition of gender equality and democracy and another excellent teacher, the famous critic Northrop Frye. I think she recognised my potential otherwise she would not have bothered giving me that advice.

Having spent much of my childhood in the wilderness of North Canada my father was a university researcher in forest entomology I had long periods of time with no access to television, radio and cinema but lots of access to books and writing implements. I associated reading and writing with not being at school and things that were enjoyable.

If I hadn't had any good teachers I don't know what difference that would have made to my writing. But having a rotten teacher might have made a difference. It was very true of me that if I didn't like the teacher I had one Latin teacher I did not like I didn't get good marks. I don't want to produce for people I don't get along with. But if you do like them then you feel it's a shared activity. A good teacher gives you something you value

Margaret Atwood, 67, is a poet, novelist and critic. Her books include The Handmaid's Tale and The Blind Assassin, which won the 2000 Booker Prize. She was talking to Kay Smith.

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