Mrs Martin didn't make a big deal about my being a Barnardo's kid..

3rd February 2006 at 00:00
Mrs Martin didn't make a big deal about my being a Barnardo's kid. She saw the potential in me and encouraged it

I didn't like the teachers at the Barnardo's Village School. They were like drill sergeants; cold and sterile. It was the end of an era for Barnardo's, a time when they still had a colonel in charge and there were lots of punishments. The children were still getting the slipper, the ruler and the soap and water treatment. I had my mouth washed out loads of times.

When they closed the Village School in 1971, we were sent to Gilbert Colvin primary in Clayhall. There were tellings off, but nothing like the punishments at the Village School. I began to enjoy learning.

I was taught by Mrs Martin, who was warm and kind. I liked her because she didn't make a big deal about my being a Barnardo's kid and she didn't have favourites. Mrs Martin saw the potential in me and encouraged it, telling me I was bright, that I was going to be a great piano player, that I was going to go to university. She was the first person to tell me I was going to be famous. Later in life, everyone said it.

At 11, I went to live with my biological mother in London. There is something special about growing up with a bunch of kids and, in some ways, my years in Barnardo's were idyllic. Leaving behind the grass and the open spaces for a concrete city where you couldn't play outside was a big culture shock.

At home, I was submissive. I tried to be the perfect child, to achieve the highest standards, but nothing was ever good enough for my mother. I was beaten so often that, after a while, it became meaningless.

School became my escape, the place where I could let everything out, so I misbehaved. And Sarah Siddons school was the perfect setting. It was a mad place. Although I wasn't aware of it at the time, my teachers obviously knew what was going on at home. I remember intercepting letters about my behaviour and begging my year mistress Rosalind Stott not to tell my mum what I'd been up to.

Rosalind was a good teacher, but the students gave her a hard time and I'm sure I must have joined in. She was an "out" lesbian who didn't wear deodorant. It was because of her that I was taken back into care at 13. I got in touch with her about seven years ago, just before she died, and she told me that one of the most frightening moments of her life was when she was called to speak about my case in court. My mother cursed her with black magic.

I went back to the Barnardo's village and started at Ilford grammar, but I'd completely switched off from education. At Sarah Siddons, I'd misbehaved, but used the fact I was clever to get me off the hook. I was even going to take O-levels a year early. But I hated being back at Barnardo's, and at 14 I forced myself to make a decision: education or the streets. I chose to live on the streets. A year later, I was in prison. I served 15 months for shoplifting.

When I came out, I got some O-levels. I did a couple of years of a degree in politics and philosophy at Leeds University, but I dropped out. I remember a social worker asking me what I hoped to gain from going to university. I remember thinking, "If I do well, maybe my mother will love me". I couldn't work out who I was doing it for, so I gave up.

Since then, I've completed a master's degree, studied creative writing and performance skills. I've never stopped learning.

My schooldays clearly had a profound effect on me, as both Mrs Martin and Rosalind Stott are fictionalised characters in my first novel. And my own experiences of education have informed the way I work with young people. I see the potential in everyone, no matter what they have done in the past.

We should never write anyone off. Everyone is capable of change, right up until their last breath.

Author , poet and performer Valerie Mason-John was talking to Jan Murray.

Time to Care is The TES's campaign to get a better deal for children in care. To join the debate on how they can be helped, go to


1962 Born Cambridge, placed in foster care

1966-78 Attends Barnardo's Village School in Barkingside and Gilbert Colvin primary in Clayhall, Essex, then Sarah Siddons school, Paddington, London, and Ilford girls' grammar, Essex

1992 Trains in physical theatre and mime at Desmond Jones School, London.

In rep with black theatre company, Talawa

1998 Writes first play, Sin Dykes

1999 Publishes Brown Girl In the Ring, collection of plays, poetry and stories

2000 Wins Windrush Achievement Award as arts and community pioneer

2005 First novel, Borrowed Body, a fictionalised memoir of her childhood, published by Serpent's Tail. Anger management self-help book, Detox Your Heart, published by Windhorse Publications

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