My best teacher

6th June 2003 at 01:00
I went off to see T-Rex wearing satin trousers and glitter drops on my cheeks, and there was Karen Howell in the audience similarly turned out with sparkle on her face

The day I left school Miss Joyce, the headmistress, shook my hand and said she was very pleased I was never coming back.

Edgbaston Church of England college for girls in Birmingham was a very strict, academic, fee-paying school and I loathed every minute I was there - with the exception of art and music lessons. Even the uniform was horrible. We wore brown skirts, cream shirts and tomato-coloured cardigans.

I really was a handful, though I didn't do anything very terrible by today's standards. I just did my own thing and didn't fit in.

My parents were constantly being called up to the school. I loathed the fact that it was an all girls' school. I loathed the fact that if you were academic you sat at the front and, if not, you sat at the back. I was dyslexic.

I was disabled - I lost a year of schooling through having some bones straightened and ended up with one leg longer than the other - and I had a lisp. They just didn't reckon on me at all and I was treated like a lost cause. I was disruptive. I talked in lessons, didn't do as I was told, didn't do my homework. I was badly behaved in every lesson except art.

It was a school for young ladies and I wasn't interested in the feminine ideal they wanted us to be. I was there in the Seventies, a time when women were really starting to break free of middle-class chauvinistic confines and I felt school was holding me back big time.

Karen Howell, the art teacher, was my saviour. She was petite, wore make-up and was independent and a reflection of what we wanted to be when we were grown up. She was also very young - probably only about five years older than we were - and because of that she had a particularly good understanding of our growing pains. We spent a lot of time in class talking about things we really wanted to talk about such as make-up, boys and rock music, and because of that she got the best results out of us. She was like one of us, more of an older sister than a teacher. We even called her Karen, which was unusual then, and if anyone had heard us we'd have been lynched.

I already knew I wanted to act and sing when I left school and she was probably the only person in my life who didn't scoff at my ambition. She was into the same music I was into at the time: Marc Bolan, Alice Cooper, David Bowie and Roxy Music. One night after school, I went off to see T-Rex at the Birmingham Odeon wearing satin trousers and glitter drops on my cheeks, and there was Karen Howell in the audience similarly turned out with sparkle on her face.

Eventually I was banned from art lessons and music, which was the only other subject I enjoyed, as punishment for not working well in other areas.

Karen was very diplomatic about it and we stayed friends and are still in touch, correspond and meet up from time to time. She is still at the school, inspiring other people.

The music teacher, Miss Nelson, was lovely, too. She gave us an incredible love of classical music. I remember her playing Holst's Planet Suite and allowing us to move around the room to the music. Both she and Miss Howell gave us a lot of physical freedom in a school where everything else was cerebral. They understood our need to be young and enthusiastic.

Art and music lessons were the only two places where we could be ourselves.

I took music theory at O-level and passed, but I failed all my other nine O-levels. I left the school under a cloud at 16, having been there from the age of four, and went to drama school.

Absolutely nothing I learned at school had any relevance to what I did and who I am today.

Actresssinger Toyah Willcox was talking to Pamela Coleman


1958 Born in Birmingham

1962-75 Edgbaston C of E college for girls; Birmingham Old Rep Theatre school

1976 Joins National Theatre

1977-78 Appears in Derek Jarman film, Jubilee, forms own band

1983-84 Plays lead in Trafford Tanzi at Mermaid Theatre

2000 Plays lead in touring production of Calamity Jane

2001 Publication of autobiography, Living Out Loud

2003 Appears in ITV's I'm a Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. New CD, Velvet Lined Shell, released. Stars in Calamity Jane, opening at the Shaftesbury Theatre, London, on June 12

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