My best teacher

3rd July 1998 at 01:00
By the time I started school in Johannesburg in the late 1950s the National Party was dominant in South Africa. The African National Congress was a blacks-only organisation, and my parents, who were white activists, were members of the Communist party. It was a period of passive resistance when people would defy the law with the purpose of risking imprisonment. My parents had been arrested for treason in 1956, when I was four, and were still standing charge when I started school.

I was sent to an all-white girls' school called Auckland Park Preparatory School that had a reputation for being liberal.

My home life was very different from my classmates' because my parents had both black and white friends. I think all the teachers knew what my parents were doing, but it was never talked about either by them or my schoolfriends until my mother went to prison. Then one child said to me: "Is your mother a kleptomaniac?" She had never heard of a white woman being in prison for anything other than compulsive stealing.

My parents were infamous in South Africa and during that time, when my life was incredibly shaky, one teacher in particular gave me a great sense of security.

Mrs Bowskill was a good, old-fashioned teacher who knew her stuff. She was solid and unchanging and I felt safe with her. She was a big-bosomed woman who wore twinsets and pearls, and because she was English, we considered her to be very fancy. I think she was the deputy head.

Mrs Bowskill had a tremendous sense of conviction. She could convince you of anything she was teaching and for a brief period she turned me on to God. She made me believe in a Christian God who would look over everything I and my two sisters did. I came from a Communist Jewish atheist family where God was not on the agenda but, for a while, I prayed.

The other thing I remember very clearly about her was when she was teaching maths one day. She asked which of two fractions was the bigger. Some people said A and some B and I got terribly confused and didn't say anything. Eventually she asked me and I said: "I don't know." Mrs Bowskill responded: "She's the only one who's right," not meaning that the answer was right, but that I was right to admit I didn't know. That was the most important thing she taught me.

In those days South African education was very different from English education, perhaps a good 20 years behind. It concentrated very much on the three Rs. Handwriting was very important - proper joined-up copperplate which I did quite well - and then I came to England and everybody was doing italics.

My mother banned my sisters and me from reading Enid Blyton, probably because she thought she was racist, so from nine until 12 I read the English classics, particularly Dickens and Jane Austen. There was no television in South Africa and because I had a difficult time because of what my parents were involved in, I used to escape into books.

In 1963, when I was 11, my father left the country and never came back and my mother was held in solitary detention for 117 days. Not a single teacher said anything to me about it. People sort of pretended it wasn't happening.

It's hard to know whether Mrs Bowskill was politically aware. With hindsight I remember her giving me special and sympathetic looks. I said goodbye to her when I left for England with my mother just before my 12th birthday. From then, we went to school in Camden, north London. We didn't keep in touch.

She was a good teacher but I don't feel I owe her a debt. She never stepped over the line - the ethos of the school was about discipline and homework and study. She offered me a sense of security I couldn't find anywhere else at the time.

Gillian Slovo, 46, is the daughter of Ruth First, who was assassinated by a letter bomb in 1982, and Jo Slovo, confidant of Nelson Mandela, and who died in 1995. Her memoir 'Every Secret Thing, My Family, My Country' is published by Abacus. She was talking to Pamela Coleman

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