Mr Cartwright by Meera Syal

1st May 2015 at 01:00
The actor, comedian and author stood out at school. But her maverick Spanish teacher showed her that being different was a blessing

Mr Cartwright was the maverick teacher at Queen Mary's High School in Walsall. He was northern and gruff; a gravelly voiced chain-smoker who played the guitar. He taught me Spanish, a language I still love and one that has been incredibly useful.

Our school was a fairly traditional girls' grammar. Latin O-level was compulsory and we had to wear regulation navy blue knickers and a tam-o'-shanter. Yet in the middle of all this was Mr Cartwright: a sparkling personality who injected such anarchy and fun into his lessons that pretty much anyone who took Spanish came out with an A.

He made you want to learn. He sat on the desk when he talked to us and encouraged conversation. Lessons would meander off into tributaries. We talked about Franco and the politics of Spain. He had funny little rhymes and ditties that would help us to remember irregular verbs. He taught us Spanish swear words and we sang songs that would improve our pronunciation. We would come out of lessons laughing.

I was one of three Indian girls - and one black girl - in a school of 500. Mr Cartwright was the only teacher who asked me if I felt different, if I felt left out. When I told him I did, he said: "That's a pretty good place to be. I've always been different and it's never stopped me." He made it sound as though being different was creative and fun, not a curse.

At the time I was frustrated because I longed to write and act, and I didn't think that would be possible because I didn't see women like me doing that.

Mr Cartwright encouraged me to join his lunchtime guitar group. He would be smoking a fag and, when he showed us a tune, he'd stick it between the strings of his guitar at the top of the neck. I thought this was the coolest thing in the world.

This was the mid to late 1970s so we played folksy stuff: Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan; mostly songs that had four chords. We did a couple of school concerts, too.

I went on to study Spanish A-level with Mr Cartwright, and when I was about 17 we appeared together in a school performance of The Marriage of Figaro. I played Rosina and he played Dr Bartolo. He had to write the words on his hands because he hadn't learned them. He asked if I could help him out, so just before he had to sing I would hurl myself upstage and whisper the next line into his ear.

We're still in touch and he's been to see me in a couple of shows. I saw him just a few weeks ago. We reconnected after I went back to school for a speech day and to open a language lab. He's in his late seventies now, but I still find it hard to call him Ian. It has to be Mr Cartwright.

The school was very good at turning us into independent, strong women and for that I'm very grateful. I wasn't naturally clever but I worked very hard and we were judged on our results. A lot of Mr Cartwright's Spanish group went on to be interesting, high-achieving women and I think it's something to do with him.

Meera Syal was talking to Kate Bohdanowicz. Her new novel, The House of Hidden Mothers, will be published by Doubleday on 4 June. She will be discussing the book with Maya Jaggi at London's Southbank Centre on Wednesday 20 May at 7pm. For details and tickets visit

Many talents

Meera Syal

Born 27 June 1961, Wolverhampton, West Midlands

Education Attended Queen Mary's High School in Walsall; studied English and drama at Manchester University

Career Actor, comedian, author and playwright, best known for sitcoms Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars At No 42. Her semi-autobiographical novel Anita and Me is on the new GCSE English syllabus

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