Miss Woods by Joanna Trollope

1st November 2013 at 00:00
The best-selling author was considered an average student, but the faith of a teacher who believed in the potential of girls carried her all the way to Oxford

I was swotty as a child, with spectacles and braces on my teeth. I also grew to the height I am now (5ft 8in) by the time I was 12. I was one of the most conscientious children in my class and always did my homework on time, not from complacency but from anxiety.

Yet despite the fact that I was hard-working, and that my parents were always told how diligent I was, the teachers regarded me as very average and certainly not university material. It was a time when parents were more obedient to authorities, paying unquestioning respect to teachers, doctors and police, so what the teachers said about me was generally accepted.

But Dorothy Woods, who was the sister of BBC newsreader Peter Woods, changed all that when she became my A-level English teacher in the late 1950s. At that time, as well as A-level exams you could sit an S, or scholarship, level. My teachers had always said that I was not bright enough to do the S level, but Miss Woods insisted in her quiet way that it was very much worth my taking that paper. I did well, and won a place at the University of Oxford at a time when six out of seven students were young men.

Miss Woods got me interested in the poetry of Wordsworth, and I ended up basing my S-level paper on his autobiographical poem The Prelude - the wonders of nature and so on. She taught me to see through the somewhat pedantic language of the poetry to understand the different things Wordsworth meant by it. She helped me to realise that the use of language could enhance what you see.

In those days, you sat in rows in a class and took notes from the teacher in silence. (When the Establishment talks about a golden age of teaching, I always think, "Not in my life.") But Miss Woods was illuminating. In her restrained way, she encouraged us to think for ourselves by always asking questions.

I think she really liked teaching girls. She felt that many of us had good brains and that we should be urged to use them. She believed in encouraging our potential at a time when young women were almost academically invisible.

In an era without television - which we didn't get in our household until I was at university - books and teachers were important. Our house had a lot of books. And Miss Woods had a great influence on me. She was in her fifties, medium height and plumpish, with fine grey hair in a mild bob and a face that slightly resembled that of the writer Hilary Mantel. She looked like some attractive woodland creature.

Her quiet way of questioning and listening influenced my own style when I became a teacher and helped me to empathise with whatever age group I was teaching. I remember teaching the lyrics to one of the Beatles' songs to a rowdy class of 13-year-olds. It was a way of getting them to consider the use of words and poetry.

Miss Woods was also the first person who displayed real confidence in me, which is unquantifiable as a gift. I think of her with enormous warmth, affection and gratitude.

My success as a writer came much later - I wasn't published until my late forties. But I think it is important to remember the people who have taken you by the hand and helped you along the way.

I recall a lovely story I once heard: someone said that the job of a teacher is not to instruct but to walk around the classroom opening the windows of curiosity and knowledge, and encouraging children to look through them. That is what Miss Woods did for me.

Joanna Trollope's Sense and Sensibility, a contemporary reworking of Jane Austen's classic novel, is out now, published by HarperCollins

Pen to paper

Joanna Trollope

Born: 9 December 1945

Education: Dunottar School for Girls and Reigate County School for Girls, both in Surrey, England; St Hugh's College, Oxford

Career: Author. Held various teaching posts during 1967-79, and worked for the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1965-67. Appointed OBE in 1996.

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