Ms Douek and Mr Matthews by Stephen K Amos

1st August 2014 at 01:00
Growing up as one of few black children in his South London school, this burgeoning stand-up comic lacked self-belief. But two teachers gave him the confidence to stand before an audience

Ravenstone Primary School in Balham, South London, was quite multicultural, by which I mean there was one of each ethnic minority in a class full of white British. So there would be one Irish kid, an Asian child, a Chinese boy, me and my twin sister Stella.

I couldn't wait to get there in the mornings and that was thanks to Ruby Douek. She was our form tutor and she told us all to call her by her first name. She was always smiling and very kind.

I was very talkative, yet Ruby never raised her voice and I don't remember one negative word coming out of her mouth. Not like some of the other teachers. This was a time when you'd be smacked with a ruler for writing with your left hand. I'm naturally left-handed so I got hit. It was barbaric.

Ruby was dedicated, too. Once she caught her scarf in the door of her car and suffered an awful burn, yet she was back the next day with a neck brace on.

One Christmas I was cast as a shepherd in the nativity play. I was very excited but my parents were horrified at the prospect of me acting. Ruby wrote to them and somehow persuaded them to let me do it.

Thanks to Ruby and the tight-knit relationship I had with my sister, I enjoyed primary school, but I wasn't particularly happy when I moved on. It had been decided that Stella, who I stuck to like glue, would be put in different classes from me. I was devastated. It forced a wedge between us that I still resent.

My teenage years were spent moving to and from Nigeria, but when I was 11 and 12 I attended a secondary school in Balham and that's where I met Mr Matthews, who taught me English. I don't want to name the school as I don't want people coming out of the woodwork.

Mr Matthews encouraged me to tell stories and explore the side of me that is the foundation for the job I'm doing now: recounting tales and making them funny.

I've still got my old English exercise books and he used to mark them with one tick, two ticks or three ticks in a circle, which meant excellent. Without him and all those ticks in my books, I would not have had this wonderful love affair with speech and language.

He'd ask me to read a story aloud and I'd get a round of applause. It gave me confidence. I wasn't good at science or maths - I could barely work the abacus - but I excelled in writing stories.

Mr Matthews was so calm. In that same school we had a woodwork teacher who took pleasure in throwing pieces of equipment at children, and a religious studies teacher who would stand in the middle of the class and yell "Shut up!" as the whole class started to hum. We could be so cruel. But Mr Matthews had none of that. He never raised his voice. He was fair, firm and respected.

School could be quite isolating, as there weren't many people who looked like me. In history we'd be taught about the achievements of the British Empire, as well as slavery. Then kids in the playground would say to me, "You lot were slaves, ha ha. And you didn't bring anything to the world."

Ruby Douek made me feel good about myself and Mr Matthews made me realise that I did bring something to the world. I have never seen either of them again but I'll never forget them.

Stephen K Amos was talking to Kate Bohdanowicz. He is supporting the Stroke Association's "Not just a funny turn" mini-stroke campaign.

A laugh a minute

Stephen K Amos

Born Amos famously refuses to reveal his age

Education Ravenstone Primary School, Balham; various secondary schools in London and Nigeria; University of Westminster, where he studied criminal justice

Career Stand-up comedian and television broadcaster


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