Mrs St Johnston by Amanda Donohoe

28th August 2015 at 01:00
The actress often clashed with authority figures as a young woman. But a funny and irreverent history teacher encouraged her to channel her energy in a positive direction

Valerie St Johnston wasn't just my favourite teacher at Francis Holland girls' school in central London - I canvassed a few of my old schoolfriends and it seems she was everyone's favourite.

Mrs St Johnston taught me history from the age of 12 to 16. This was the mid-1970s but her methods were way before their time. There was no teacher barrier. She didn't sit behind a desk; she would drag her chair in front of it and sit with us. She didn't treat us like children and we rose to that challenge. We wanted her respect and admired her terribly.

She was also wonderfully feminist and would always add the female perspective to whatever she was teaching. That was unusual in those days, especially when teaching the history of the First and Second World Wars.

Mrs St Johnston was so much more casual than the other teachers. They were in twinsets and pearls while she was stylishly dressed - usually in black and often in an elegant trouser suit. She was in her forties and good-looking with blond hair, and she smoked cigarettes. I know this because I could smell them on her. She was also more human than the others. Funny and irreverent. I aspired to be like her.

History was my favourite subject, mainly because she treated me as if I were an individual, rather than a child who needed to be told off or constrained in some way.

I was a little too energetic and loud at school, and I found the strictures difficult to cope with. There were rules about where you sat at lunch, what you should and shouldn't say, how your shirt was buttoned up and countless more. I used to think, "Why are these people being so petty? Why does it matter?" I just had to sit there to get told off - I had very long, dark eyelashes and I was often falsely accused of wearing mascara.

In 1976, punk rock hit London and there was an air of rebellion that the school was desperate to stamp out. Thinking back, I didn't do anything terrible but I did dye my hair jet black. That met with general disapproval, although one of the teachers mistook me for a new Japanese student.

Instead of capturing my energy, nurturing it and channelling it into something positive, a lot of the teachers tried to subdue it, fearing it might be dangerous. Mrs St Johnston never behaved like that. She allowed me to be me and recognised that I was capable of learning given the right circumstances. I got eight O-levels but only one A, and that was in history.

I went on to do history A-level but I left after a year. Mrs St Johnston was disappointed but I felt restricted emotionally and physically by school. I met [former boyfriend pop star] Adam Ant when I was 15 and the explosion of the art and music scene in London meant life was so much more exciting outside school.

So I abandoned my A-levels, got a job in the fashion industry, left home, hung out in London and had a great time. Then, at 19, I went to the Central School of Speech and Drama.

I didn't keep in touch with Mrs St Johnston. I would love to have a conversation with her now but alas she died some years ago. I'm pleased that I told her there and then that she was a brilliant teacher. She was a fantastic woman and I adored her.

Amanda Donohoe was talking to Kate Bohdanowicz. She is a Stroke Association ambassador. For more information about the charity's work, visit www.stroke.org.uk

Casting call

Amanda Donohoe

Born June 1962, London

Education Beckford Primary School, West Hampstead; St Mary's Town and Country School, Swiss Cottage; Francis Holland School, Regent's Park; Central School of Speech and Drama, Swiss Cottage

Career Film, television and stage actress best known for starring in Castaway in 1986 opposite Oliver Reed (right). She has also appeared in TV series such as LA Law (inset, right) and Emmerdale

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