My best teacher

20th November 1998 at 00:00
I had a great childhood. I went to school in a town called Bassendean in Western Australia. It was a fairly small town of maybe a couple of thousand people, about seven miles out of Perth.

When I was about 10 or 11 the war was on and the high school had been taken over by the military. So we went to school in the mornings and in the afternoons the kids from the high school used it. We only had half days which was absolutely marvellous - in the afternoons we would go swimming in the river. I was a good swimmer and I went to swimming classes from an early age.

Then I got a scholarship to go to Perth Modern School. It was a school that you couldn't get into other than by academic ability and any kid in Western Australia could sit for their exams.

Our family didn't have any money. We lived on a plot of land that my dad had bought on the never-never. When I was a little kid we lived in one room for years until he had saved up enough money to build another room.

I wasn't really very academic. I was good at singing and art and playing the fool. So when I passed the entrance exam it was a shock. I had never worn a tie in my life and to have to get into long trousers was really heavy going. We had to wear a blazer with a school badge and I remember I painted my badge on with oil paints because it was quite expensive.

We had an art teacher called Frank Mills and because I was so good at art I was teacher's pet, I suppose. But one of my best teachers was our maths teacher Mr Calcutt.

I was always appalling at maths. Whereas the other kids could do these things in their heads, I was useless. But this teacher took the trouble to stop me and say: "Look, don't try to do everything at once. Do things in stages, do things step by step and write every step down as you do it. Then if you if you make a mistake you can go back step by step and find out where you made the mistake. " It made such a difference - I actually started getting some of the sums right! He was able to make sense of maths for me which up to then had been like a foreign language.

Mr Calcutt was also the sports master. One day he wrote all the swimming events on the board and you had to write your name down next to the one you wanted to go in for. I put my name down for every one. He pulled me into his office and said: "This isn't a joke is it, Harris?" And I said: "No I want to go in for all these races." So I did, and in the 400 yards freestyle I beat the school champion - as a 12-year-old. He went on to swim in the Commonwealth Games.

When I was 15 I won the Australian junior backstroke championship. In the final I got a good turn, which is very important in backstroke, and I came away from the turn leading the field. I was suddenly first and I could relax and watch everybody else. It was just great.

When I came back to school, I was somewhat of a hero. I can remember a teacher called Mr Clough who took me aside and said, "Look, we all know you have won the championship but you don't have to be showing off all day in class. Just cool it." It made me a little bit less big-headed, which was a good thing.

I didn't imagine that I could make a living out of any of the things I was good at - painting, mucking about, playing the piano. When I left university I taught art for a year, but I was a terrible teacher - I was too busy trying to make friends with all the kids. I would be a good teacher now because I know how to communicate, but then I was just a big kid myself.

At the time I was teaching swimming as well and I picked up a bug which paralysed me for about a month. I thought I had polio but nobody knew what it was. Slowly I came out of it, but in that time I decided I didn't want to be a teacher. I wanted to pursue painting, which is when I came to England. I ran out of money so quickly, you wouldn't believe it. But I got lucky and got a job in television.

Singer, songwriter, artist and cartoonist Rolf Harris, OBE, made his British television debut in 1953. Since 1994 he has presented BBC1's hugely popular series 'Animal Hospital'. 'Rolf's Amazing World of Animals', a video showing highlights and previously unseen footage from the TV series of the same name, is released on November 23 by Polygram video.

He was talking to Harvey McGavin .

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